It’s a safe bet most folks in Georgia can’t name their District Attorney. But that’s not the case in college football’s newly minted “Titletown”— Athens. 

During the past two years, the Classic City has been the recipient of a couple of national championship trophies and a prosecuting attorney whose uncanny ability to generate publicity in this college town rivals only Bulldog sideline boss Kirby Smart and a handful of his star players. 

Meet Deborah Gonzalez, district attorney of the Western Judicial Circuit (which encompasses Clarke and Oconee counties), who famously declared after taking office in Jan. 2021 which laws she won’t enforce.  

Georgia’s first Hispanic district attorney, Gonzalez is Athens’ own “lightning rod,” evidenced by a recent Town Hall Meeting (she dubbed it a “listening session”) conducted in a theater at the Athens-Clarke County library. Skeptics in the near-capacity crowd heckled her throughout the 90-minute event, while supporters rebutted with rounds of raucous cheers typically reserved for Bulldog touchdowns two miles away at Sanford Stadium. 

DA oversight bill passed in the Legislature 

In Atlanta, however, Senate Bill 92– which creates a Prosecuting Attorney Oversight Committee— passed the General Assembly. Rep. Houston Gaines, a Republican whose district includes a portion of Clarke and Oconee counties, is a staunch proponent. “I want to respond to a comment that this bill was brought about as a result of minority candidates being elected across the state,” said Gaines. (He to Gonzalez in a state House special election race in 2017, only to defeat her for the same seat a year later.)  “This bill was brought about because we have district attorneys and prosecutors who aren’t doing their job,” said Gaines, an obvious reference to his DA without mentioning her name.  

SB 92 passed 97-77 in the House primarily along party lines (Mesha Mainor of Atlanta was the lone Democrat to vote affirmative) and is on the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp, an Athens native and resident, for his anticipated signature.  

Democrat Spencer Frye, who like Gaines represents a portion of Clarke County in the House, opposed the legislation because he believes the removal of a district attorney from office, except in rare circumstances, should be the duty of constituents and not lawmakers.  

“I think an oversight committee may have prevented horrific issues (such as what) we witnessed in the Ahmaud Aubrey case,” Frye said.  “But reactive politics which expand government and take away the citizens’ electoral power is not the solution.”  

The Western Judicial Circuit is composed of 17 employees, primarily prosecutors, when fully-staffed. But as of last month, there were only five attorneys on staff with three more in the process of being hired.    

Gaines points to a series of calamities in the district attorney’s office as the catalyst for the department’s stunning number of resignations since Gonzalez’s arrival.  

Lawsuit against Gonzalez has been filed 

Last month, Athens businessman Jarrod Miller entered into a civil action suit in Superior Court of Athens-Clarke County against the district attorney on the basis she has been “unwilling and unable to perform her statutory duties” since she took office.  

The 20-page filing includes a summary accusing Gonzalez of being unable to properly staff her office, hiring under-qualified assistant district attorneys, failure to appear before grand juries, being on the brink of allowing 150 cases to be dismissed for failure to prosecute and not assisting victims of serious crimes.  

“Just a few weeks ago, there was a writ of mandamus filed in court trying to get her to simply do her job,” Gaines said, referencing the well-publicized legal remedy filed by Miller. “There was a letter from our four Superior Court judges asking her to show up to court to do her job. We also have a letter from a police officer where he expressed to her his absolute disgust with her performance in a case. There’s issue after issue after issue. And 35 prosecutors have resigned from that office. That’s the equivalent of every single position in that office resigning twice over the last two years.”  

Eric Gisler, former chair of the Oconee County Democratic Committee, has a different perspective.  “I think it would be silly of me to say that there aren’t problems in the district attorney’s office,” he said. “There have been some high-profile, obvious miscues. And it needs to improve. But I don’t think this bill or lawsuits are going to address the problem when the problem is she doesn’t have the budget to offer competitive salaries to attract prosecutors in this kind of environment.  

“From what I’ve seen, district attorneys 30 minutes down the road in Gwinnett County can make $30,000 more per year in starting salary. That’s hard to compete with,” Gisler said.    

The lack of staffing has contributed to an ever-growing backlog of cases. It also has Gordon Rhoden, chair of the Clarke County Republican Party, questioning the logic that the departures were solely over non-competitive wages. “The question is why did they all leave? They didn’t all leave because they had better job offers,” he said.    

A former prosecutor on Gonzalez’ staff, Alex Cidado, told WXIA-TV recently his departure had little to do with an increase in pay elsewhere. “I left the office because of the toxic environment there and, unfortunately, the belief I could not do my full duty and hold up my oath,” he said.   

Gonzalez has also become a punching bag of late in The Oconee Enterprise, the legal organ of Oconee County based in Watkinsville. The newspaper featured five front-page news stories on Gonzalez, with all but one casting a negative light on her office.  

Furthermore, an editorial unleashed harsh criticism at Gonzalez. “Her ineptitude as a leader has made the painful weeping of victims drown out the sounds of justice,” wrote editor Michael Prochaska. “Facing widespread disapproval, a mass exodus of prosecutors, high-profile losses, legislation aimed at her office, damning news reports and editorials and even what amounts to a poor job performance review and probation notice by all four circuit Superior Court judges, Gonzalez is stubbornly refusing to throw in the towel.”  

By the way, the hearing for Miller’s suit against Gonzalez is scheduled for May 8th in Athens and will be heard by Senior Judge David T. Emerson, formerly chief judge for Superior Court in Douglas County.  

If it proceeds to trial, Miller’s remedy is simply for Gonzalez to fulfill her sworn duties or be held in contempt of court.  

In the interim, the divide between Gonzalez’s left-leaning backers and the conservative critics is unlikely to heal anytime soon.  

Businessman Jeff Hood is a free-lance writer who lives in Oconee County. 

 

Login

Lost your password?