New DA faces major hurdles



fosterELLSWORTH — A shakeup has begun in the District Attorney’s Office, with experienced prosecutors leaving and the district attorney-elect discovering obstacles to replacing them.

District Attorney-elect Matt Foster is busy preparing to be short-staffed instead of setting goals for his first year in office.

Two of the office’s most experienced prosecutors, Paul Cavanaugh and Mary Kellett, are leaving.

Foster said the person in charge of human resources and budgets at the Maine Attorney General’s Office has advised him that those positions can’t be filled until June.

Cavanaugh is transferring to the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office in mid-December.

Foster said he understands Kellett is leaving by year’s end.

“Even though she’s resigning Dec. 31, there’s no funding for the last six months of the fiscal year,” to hire her replacement, Foster said. “We don’t have any money in the budget to fill open slots.

“I’m hoping to be able to talk to the attorney general to get some concessions.”

A spokesman for the Maine Attorney General’s Office was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment.

With Cavanaugh’s departure, “what I’m going to be left with in Washington County is two junior prosecutors,” Foster said.

Meanwhile, both counties have jury terms starting after the holidays: Jan. 6 in Hancock and Jan. 8 in Washington.

That will leave Foster to represent arguments on an appeal to be heard by the law court — a case that had been Cavanaugh’s.

“These are the kind of emergency cases I’m working on,” he said.

Assistant District Attorney Bill Entwisle, who works out of the Hancock County office, is staying.

“I have a lot of supporters who wanted me to go in and clean house, but I don’t think that’s in the public’s best interest,” Foster said. Fifteen thousand voters wanted Entwisle to be district attorney, he said.

Foster has two defense attorneys that he would like to hire as prosecutors, but salaries are an issue.

Starting salaries for assistant district attorneys are around $42,000, he said. Further experience doesn’t matter.

“If they’re not paid what they’re worth, they can’t do it,” Foster said.

Foster remains optimistic, however.

“I think it will work out fine,” he said.

He still intends to make the District Attorney’s Office more efficient.

Foster said right now all cases are assigned to a certain assistant district attorney, no matter how simple the charge, such as operating after suspension.

“I think anybody ought to go pick up one of these files and take care of it,” Foster said. The way the system is set up now, no other attorney will touch a file that isn’t his or her case, “which really slows things down for the court.”

Longtime former District Attorney Michael Povich provided some perspective on the office.

“Essentially there’s a change after 40 years,” Povich said.

Povich was district attorney for 36 years. His deputy district attorney, Carletta Bassano, served for four years and chose not to run again.

“It’s not an easy job,” Povich said. “You are not loved by a lot of people and constantly criticized.”

Budget problems? Those are business as usual, according to the former prosecutor.

“It’s always been a budget problem,” Povich said. “There’s always been rolling vacancies. Each day you’re not paying somebody is money you have. It’s all driven by whether money is available.”

Povich said attorneys who are hired to be prosecutors, no matter how much experience they have, are always hired at whatever the minimum starting salary is.

When Povich hired Assistant District Attorney Bill Entwisle, who had been in private practice for 15 years, Entwisle had to start at the minimum first-year prosecutor salary, Povich said. “Then you hope each year there are merit raises or step increases.”

“Paul [Cavanaugh] can take his salary with him, but his replacement most likely can’t be hired at his salary,” Povich said. “That’s going to be one of the realities of the new district attorney. You can’t pay them anywhere what they’re worth.”

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at josborn@ellsworthamerican.com or call 667-2576.