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Thu January 30, 2014
Rockingham County Prosecutors Forge Ahead Amid Turmoil
It’s nearing three months since an investigation into Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams led to a major shakeup at the county attorney’s office. There, a staff of 35 have faced some major adjustments.
How it went down
Rockingham County prosecutor Terri Harrington says she had no idea what she was getting into when she showed up for work on Thursday morning, November 7th. “We came to work, and we were locked out of the office while investigators were in the office,” she says. An armed guard at the door, and the staff was escorted into a jury room. “It was very surreal,” she says, “especially being on this side of law and order.”
Harrington and the 15 or so other attorneys were told their boss, and two others were suspended on paid leave -- and the FBI would be investigating.
Still, no charges
At this point, no charges have been filed against Reams. And the other two individuals – Deputy Attorney Tom Reid and victim advocate Tara Longo resigned earlier this month. The Attorney General’s office said they were not the target of any criminal investigation and were fully cooperative.
As for Reams -- the Attorney General’s office has said it’s looking into mismanagement of fines collected for criminal convictions. Reams’ attorney Michael Ramsdell says Reams maintains his innocence. “He certainly doesn’t believe any criminal charges should be brought or will be brought.”
Reams remains on paid leave at his salary of $80,000.
Exeter resident Jim Boffetti is filling in as Interim County Attorney. He runs the Consumer Protection Bureau at the N.H. Department of Justice, which continues to pay his salary. “It’s been a very hectic, and a very busy few months,” says Boffetti.
Reams didn’t have his own cases, but his Deputy, Tom Reid, had 25 complex cases which were distributed to other already over-worked prosecutors. Then, on top of that, something else would complicate everyone’s workload.
A backlog of cases
When Boffetti arrived, he says, he discovered a backlog of cases from the district court that needed to be assigned within 90 days – and for many, those 90 days were almost up, meaning the cases could be dismissed.
They had to be assigned to the lawyers and the advocates and investigators; I was a little concerned about the backlog.
Nobody’s pointing fingers about why the backlog occurred. Some staff mention administrative and computer changes. But prosecutors like Harrington say, Boffetti immediately streamlined processes that had languished before he arrived.
So initially, it felt like we were drowning in paperwork, um, cases that had been pending in the district courts for quite a while that we hadn’t even seen.
Victim advocates take the brunt
But it is the victim advocates who have been hit hardest. They walk victims of crimes through the criminal justice system.
Advocate Cubbi Lirette says when her colleague Tara Longo was first suspended, the two remaining victim advocates saw their workloads increase from 100 to 160 cases each.
“We’ve been working a lot of hours, coming in early and leaving late,” says Lirette. “Neither one of us leave the office without files, all of our new files get read at home.” Lirette says the office doesn’t offer comp-time, and hasn’t seen even a cost-of-living raise in years.
But the county has recently hired a part time employee to take on some of the written correspondence. And Defense attorneys in the area say they haven’t experienced any delays in their cases. Boffetti confirms that the number of cases being tried has not slowed because of the transition.
Reprieve in trying times
So, things do seem to be looking up. A new attorney has been brought on, and perhaps more importantly, people here are feeling relief under Jim Boffetti.
Cubbi Lirette says morale at the courthouse had been low. She cites “personnel issues” which, she says, led around a dozen employees to quit over the last two years. Jerome Blanchard, a long-time prosecutor, says “people are feeling a little more comfortable now, a little more able to speak their mind.”
“I think the question is looming over all of us who is ultimately going to be running this office,” wonders Harrington.
Uncertainty seems to be pervasive – just this week, Rockingham County lawmakers canceled a budget meeting with Boffetti. Instead, they met with suspended attorney Reams, at another location.
Boffetti says he’ll stay on as long as he’s needed. The Attorney General's office says a complex financial investigation such as this can take many months. Charges won't be filed until the investigation is complete.