Dallas DA Susan Hawk fires top aide, says moves have everything to do with trust

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1 Dallas DA Susan Hawk fires top aide, says moves have everything to do with trust Dallas Morning News By SARAH MERVOSH, Staff Writer Published: 23 March :46 PM Updated: 24 March :28 PM Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk fired her second-in-command Monday, shocking many in the legal community and hinting at an office in turmoil only 82 days into her administration. Bill Wirskye, a seasoned attorney who ran day-to-day operations at the district attorney s office, had been Hawk s campaign supporter and longtime friend before she asked him to help lead the office as her first assistant. But as they worked closely together as the office s Nos. 1 and 2, she said their strong personalities butted heads, culminating Monday when they had a conversation that prompted her to ask for his resignation. Hawk didn t specify what they spoke about, but she said when Wirskye refused to resign, she fired him. He s first assistant. I m the district attorney. When there is tension between the two of us and conflict between the two of us, this office deserves more, Hawk said Monday. It deserves to have a united front at the top, and that s what I plan to give. Wirskye confirmed his departure Monday, but said he wasn t ready to discuss it. Hawk didn t immediately name his replacement. He is the second high-ranking official that Hawk hired and then promptly forced out since she took office Jan. 1. Jennifer Balido, a former judge who served as Hawk s administrative chief, resigned last month after Hawk decided she wasn t a good fit. The departures have spurred speculation among stunned prosecutors and defense attorneys, and have emboldened critics who, in recent weeks, have privately accused Hawk of having difficulty trusting her employees. Given that she has fired, now, two highly regarded and highly trusted attorneys in the criminal justice system here in Dallas County means there is something more at play than just finding the right fit, said Tom Nowak, a defense attorney who lost to Hawk last year in the Republican primary. Monday s dismissal of Wirskye represents a dramatic falling out for the new district attorney and her top assistant.

2 Dallas DA Susan Hawk fires top aide, says moves to have everything to do with trust The two have known each other since both worked as prosecutors under a previous administration. A respected defense attorney who also served as special prosecutor last year in the high-profile trial of a man accused of killing Kaufman County prosecutors, Wirskye supported Hawk in her quest to defeat Democratic incumbent Craig Watkins in November. Everybody at the courthouse is well aware of their long friendship, Nowak said. If you are going to hire somebody because you trust them and because they got you into that position then it calls into question your temperament when you turn around and fire them three months later. Defense attorney Heath Harris, who worked as first assistant under Watkins, said anyone in that position must balance earning the trust of the district attorney and employees. You have to try to direct your leadership style so it doesn t overshadow the DA, he said, and it s a hard thing to do. Balido, the administrative chief who resigned under pressure last month, said Hawk had exhibited signs that she didn t trust those she had hired. Balido said her former boss had apparently become so worried that Balido and Wirskye were leaving her out of the loop that Hawk asked Balido to report directly to her. That was my first sign of trouble. She came into my office one day and said she wanted to take me out of Bill s chain of command so now you and he don t have a reason to talk to each other anymore, Balido said. Things just kind of went south after that. Hawk conceded that this has everything to do with trust. She said she respected both Wirskye and Balido, but decided neither were a good fit for her office. Some expressed concern that upheaval at the top would affect morale throughout the district attorney s office. It s not good for the troops, Harris said. They wonder if the first assistant can get fired like that, then what securities do I have? Former state District Judge Mike Snipes, who presided over the Kaufman County case that Wirskye prosecuted, said the departures could give the perception of some uncertainty and it can cause the rank and file to lose their confidence. But they shouldn t, he said, adding that what the rank-and-file DAs should do is just keep on doing their jobs and not worry about the politics. And Hawk, citing personality and communication issues between her and Wirskye, said other district attorney employees have nothing to worry about. In order for this office to be successful, and in order for us to move forward, we had to part ways, she said. Staff writer Jennifer Emily contributed to this report. Page 2 of 2

3 Former No. 2 says Dallas County DA s office deserves a leader who is stable and competent Dallas Morning News By SARAH MERVOSH, Staff Writer Published: March 24, :15 PM A day after Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk fired her first assistant and longtime friend Bill Wirskye, in an upheaval that stunned the legal community and revealed signs of tumult at the top of her new administration, her second-in-command fired back at his former boss. While Hawk said the district attorney s office deserves a united front at the top, Wirskye said the office deserves a leader who is stable and competent. Wirskye, a veteran attorney who last year served as special prosecutor in the highprofile trial for the Kaufman County prosecutor killings, released the following statement: I regret the DA has chosen to speak publicly about my departure. The Dallas District Attorney s Office has the best staff in the nation. They deserve a leader who is stable and competent. Law enforcement organizations cannot serve the community and function appropriately when mired in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Transparency, accountability, and accessibility are duties owed to the community, not empty campaign promises. I sincerely wish the best for the women and men in the Dallas DA s Office, and I remain proud to have served with them. I wish Susan Hawk success in her personal journey.

4 Friends, colleagues say Dallas County DA Susan Hawk spent time in drug rehab Dallas Morning News By SARAH MERVOSH & GROMER JEFFERS Published: March 27, :45 AM Updated: March 27, :04 AM Friends and colleagues say Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk, who defeated incumbent Craig Watkins (right) in last year's election, spent time at a rehabilitation facility for prescription drug abuse. Dallas County s new district attorney Susan Hawk, blasted by former co-workers for acting erratically on the job, spent a month at a rehab center for prescription drug use during a break in the campaign for that office in late 2013, friends and courthouse colleagues say. Details about the previously undisclosed rehab stint in Arizona have begun to emerge after Hawk fired her second-in-command, Bill Wirskye, stunning fellow prosecutors and hinting at an office in upheaval less than three months into the Republican s tenure. His dismissal came shortly after Hawk accused him -- wrongly, he says -- of breaking into her home and stealing an incriminating photo of her, according to a friend familiar with the confrontation, citing it as another example of her bizarre behavior recently around staffers. Hawk, 44, didn t respond to several requests for comment Thursday. Her former campaign manager, Mari Woodlief, told of the nature of the latest claims against Hawk, declined to respond. Those close to Hawk, who agreed to speak about her rehab efforts and other incidents on the condition of anomymity, said they are worried. She definitely needs to get help, said a courthouse colleague who has talked to Hawk about her use of pain medication in the past. The information about her stay in the rehab center conflicts with what Hawk said publicly while campaigning in October 2013, only a month after announcing her bid for DA against Democratic incumbent Craig Watkins. She said then she was going to a facility on the East Coast to have back surgery and that rehabilitation would be necessary.

5 "I'll be stronger than ever when I get back," Hawk told The Dallas Morning News before she left. But the courthouse colleague and another friend said Thursday that Hawk previously told them she went to rehab for prescription drug misuse. Hawk spent about a month at The Meadows treatment facility because of her use of pain medication - hydrocodone and oxycontin - and an Adderall-like drug. Hawk had been prescribed those for back pain and attention deficit disorder, the colleague said. The Meadows, in the Sonoran Desert about an hour northwest of Phoenix, describes itself on its website as the nation s premier program for alcohol, drug addiction and other disorders. Slow campaign start Hawk resigned as a Democratic state district judge in September She switched parties to run against Watkins, the two-term incumbent. Her campaign started slowly, and Hawk immediately was beset by courthouse questions about her personal life. She denied the speculation, including an allegation that she suffered from a chronic disease. I don't have [expletive deleted] Crohn's disease," she said. "I ve heard that one too." But in early October 2013, Hawk told The News that she was suffering from back pain. While she was gone for what she said was the back surgery, former state District Judge Vickers Cunningham made campaign appearances on her behalf. Cunningham on Thursday declined additional comment. She returned and knocked off her challenger in the GOP primary, defense attorney Tom Nowak. He said Thursday he had heard questions about her but made no mention of them during the campaign. In the general election, Hawk and Watkins bickered frequently, including a memorable encounter after a forum on crimes against women and children. During the event, Watkins had trouble remembering how long he d been in office and became argumentative with the moderator. Afterward, Hawk muttered to Watkins, Have another cocktail. A what? Watkins retorted. Can you believe what she just said? And she wants to be district attorney. Page 2 of 6

6 Hawk, 44, didn t respond to several requests for comment Thursday. Her former campaign manager, Mari Woodlief, told of the nature of the latest claims against Hawk, declined to respond. Those close to Hawk, who agreed to speak about her rehab efforts and other incidents on the condition of anomymity, said they are worried. She definitely needs to get help, said a courthouse colleague who has talked to Hawk about her use of pain medication in the past. The information about her stay in the rehab center conflicts with what Hawk said publicly while campaigning in October 2013, only a month after announcing her bid for DA against Democratic incumbent Craig Watkins. She said then she was going to a facility on the East Coast to have back surgery and that rehabilitation would be necessary. "I'll be stronger than ever when I get back," Hawk told The Dallas Morning News before she left. But the courthouse colleague and another friend said Thursday that Hawk previously told them she went to rehab for prescription drug misuse. Hawk spent about a month at The Meadows treatment facility because of her use of pain medication - hydrocodone and oxycontin - and an Adderall-like drug. Hawk had been prescribed those for back pain and attention deficit disorder, the colleague said. The Meadows, in the Sonoran Desert about an hour northwest of Phoenix, describes itself on its website as the nation s premier program for alcohol, drug addiction and other disorders. Slow campaign start Hawk resigned as a Democratic state district judge in September She switched parties to run against Watkins, the two-term incumbent. Her campaign started slowly, and Hawk immediately was beset by courthouse questions about her personal life. She denied the speculation, including an allegation that she suffered from a chronic disease. I don't have [expletive deleted] Crohn's disease," she said. "I ve heard that one too." But in early October 2013, Hawk told The News that she was suffering from back pain. Page 3 of 6

7 While she was gone for what she said was the back surgery, former state District Judge Vickers Cunningham made campaign appearances on her behalf. Cunningham on Thursday declined additional comment. She returned and knocked off her challenger in the GOP primary, defense attorney Tom Nowak. He said Thursday he had heard questions about her but made no mention of them during the campaign. In the general election, Hawk and Watkins bickered frequently, including a memorable encounter after a forum on crimes against women and children. During the event, Watkins had trouble remembering how long he d been in office and became argumentative with the moderator. Afterward, Hawk muttered to Watkins, Have another cocktail. A what? Watkins retorted. Can you believe what she just said? And she wants to be district attorney. Watkins later said: I m very surprised she would say something like that because of the issues she has had to deal with. He did not elaborate. "I'm not going to go there," Watkins said. "Should I? No, I'm not going there." Watkins had no comment Thursday. Hawk went on to beat Watkins in the November election, becoming the first female DA in Dallas County history, and the first Republican elected countywide since Clash between friends She entered office Jan. 1 with Wirskye as her first assistant. The former defense attorney, a longtime friend who supported Hawk during her campaign, ran the day-today operations of the office. Hawk also brought in Jennifer Balido, a former judge who served as her administrative chief. But problems quickly developed. Hawk said Wirskye and Balido weren t a good fit for her office and that her first assistant had a sense of entitlement from their friendship and time on the campaign. Wirskye and Balido characterized the atmosphere under Hawk as distrustful and paranoid. Balido said Hawk acted suspicious of her relationship with Wirskye, to the point that Hawk removed her from Wirskye s chain of command so they wouldn t have a reason to talk. Page 4 of 6

8 It became obvious to me that she was very paranoid, Balido said this week. She said that Hawk came into her office multiple times a day to ask, Is there anything you need to tell me? Balido resigned in February under pressure from Hawk. She said she had hoped her exit would protect Wirskye and buy him some time. But the next month, Hawk turned on her first assistant. A friend and former co-worker of Hawk, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Hawk confronted Wirskye on a Saturday this month when both were working at the office. The friend said Hawk accused Wirskye of using DA forfeiture funds to obtain a key to her house from a Park Cities-area locksmith and then break in and steal an incriminating photo of her. The forfeiture fund is money seized in crime busts that is meant to be used for law enforcement purposes. The fund drew attention last year when Watkins came under fire for using it to pay for a car crash settlement and to sweep his office for bugs ahead of a visit from the FBI. In an interview Tuesday with The News, Hawk briefly touched on the issue, saying there is something that had happened and I asked him about it. But I don t want to get into the details about it because it is not moving our office forward and that s what I want to do. Wirskye on Thursday denied breaking into his boss house and said his reputation and previous statement speak for themselves. In a statement earlier this week, he said the DA s office deserves a leader who is stable and competent and wished Hawk success in her personal journey. Office tensions spread Initially, the personnel tensions were contained to the courthouse s top floor, where the DA and high-level staffers work. But last week a staffwide meeting left many rank-andfile DA employees confused. Hawk called the sudden meeting with about 300 attorneys and investigators in the office, an unusual occurrence for a DA s office of that size. The friend and former co-worker said Hawk intended to tell them everything and acknowledge what she said is the one thing I live in fear of getting out, but did not explicitly mention rehab. By the time the meeting convened, she apparently had changed her mind. Hawk instead gave a vague speech lauding employees for their accomplishments and making veiled references to her personal life, according to those who were there. Page 5 of 6

9 At the end, Hawk got "tearful" and told the group she knew people had been talking about her personal life. She said she'd be in her office for the coming two hours if anyone had something to discuss with her, said one staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. It was odd, the employee said. My reaction was there s no way I m going upstairs. Over the next few days, Wirskye tried to ask his boss about her behavior and make sure she was OK. But on Monday, the two had a conversation that prompted Hawk to ask for his resignation. When he refused, she fired him. Page 6 of 6

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