DA’s Office requests funds for attorney positions as Rosales steps down, Governor names replacement
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect Governor Greg Abbott appointed Bill Hicks as District Attorney on Wednesday.
EL PASO, Texas (KTEP) - Texas Governor Greg Abbott appointed Bill Hicks to replace Yvonne Rosales as District Attorney.
Hicks is the first Republican district attorney for El Paso County. He'll oversee the 34th Judicial District, which includes El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties.
Rosales who agreed to resign by Dec. 15th served her last day as DA on Wednesday.
"With over two decades of legal experience and a strong track record of public service, Bill Hicks is the ideal candidate to serve as District Attorney for Texans in El Paso, Culberson, and Hudspeth Counties," Abbott said. "The 34th Judicial District Attorney’s Office will be in good hands under Bill Hicks as he takes the office in the right direction, and I have no doubt that he will restore confidence in the office as he serves honorably and faithfully in this new role."
El Paso State Senator Cesar Blanco told KTEP News he has had several conversations with Hicks. He says Hicks' priorities are focused on addressing case backlogs and managing the El Paso Walmart mass shooting case.
"I concur with his appointment," Blanco said. "I think that he's going to focus on doing the job and that's what is important for our community."
Hicks will serve as DA for two years until the position is up for reelection. He served as an assistant district attorney under Jaime Esparza for 12 years until former Governor Rick Perry appointed him as judge of the 243rd Judicial District Court.
On Thursday, assistant district attorney George Al-Hanna will head to the El Paso County Commissioners Court with a request for nearly $1.8 million in funds to fill 20 positions at the prosecutor’s office.
Similar requests from the DA’s office for funding in the county’s 2023 fiscal year budget were denied, according to a county presentation. The office has 22 vacancies, mainly for trial and senior trial attorneys.
The vacant positions also include a need for top positions including a trial team chief and senior division chief, according to the county document.
“This request is based on a case backlog and workload increase,” according to an agenda summary authored by Al-Hanna on Monday.
Al-Hanna’s request, if approved, would go to the hiring of 10 senior trial attorneys and 10 legal secretaries. The pay for prosecutors would be $86,861 and $38,447 for the secretaries.
The positions would also fund health, and life insurances among other benefits, according to the county presentation.
A special meeting is scheduled for Thursday where the commissioners court will discuss whether to grant the budget request for the district attorney’s office. The meeting will be held a day after DA Rosales steps down from her position.
Rosales agreed to resign by Dec. 14,a day before a scheduled hearing to determine whether to temporarily remove her from office. The hearing was brought on by allegations of “incompetence” and “misconduct,” which she and her legal team have denied.
Under Rosales' leadership, nearly 1,000 criminal cases were dismissed by a jail magistrate judge due to prosecutors failing to indict or file documentation with the district clerk's office within state deadlines.
The resigning DA invoked the 5th amendment during a recent hearing in the Walmart mass shooting case, shielding herself from any potential criminal testimony. She faces criminal allegations for her alleged involvement in tampering with witnesses and intimidation.
The DA's office has repeatedly refused comment on questions around the Walmart shooting case due to a gag order.
Searching for attorneys
Al-Hanna, Rosales’ first assistant, was put in charge up until Governor Greg Abbott named a replacement. The Republican Governor named Bill Hicks, an individual of his own party, in a mostly Democratic county.
Rosales and Al-Hanna ran a law firm together for 16 years before running the DA's office. As Rosales stepped down from her position, Al-Hanna had to run the office without Curtis Cox, who has also resigned.
Cox was a senior member of the DA’s office, sometimes stepping into cases to help the DA’s prosecutorial teams. He also invoked the 5th amendment to avoid incriminating himself during a Walmart mass shooting case hearing.
In his first acts as interim, Al-Hanna ventured to fill vacant positions in the DA’s office. He offered positions to former experienced prosecutors Denise Butterworth, Amanda Enriquez and John Briggs. None accepted the offer.
All three have experience prosecuting the Walmart mass shooting case for the DA’s office. Briggs was fired from the office earlier this year.
“I am at a loss for words. (He) offered me a position on the Walmart case as a principal attorney,” Enriquez said. “He’s been complicit in her conduct. He’s been complicit and on her side since she took office.”
Enriquez, a longtime prosecutor for Rosales’ predecessor Jaime Esparza, applied for a position in the office when Rosales first took over in 2021. She was not selected.
She was also the subject of a mysterious email sent to El Paso media earlier this year that attacked her for speaking to ABC-7 KVIA about the Walmart case. The email also attacked District Court Judge Sam Medrano after a hearing in July.
The email was sent from the account of a family member of Alexander Gerhard Hoffman, a victim of the Walmart mass shooting.
KTEP raised questions about the email after a family member of the Hoffmans said it could not have come from her relatives.
In court hearings and a report submitted to the court, the Hoffman family said the DA’s controversial associate Roger Rodriguez was allegedly behind the email.
The family stated in court testimony, Rosales presented Rodriguez as a member of her team when they first met him at a meeting with other victims’ families in July.The family also testified Rodriguez allegedly began to harass and threaten them.
Attorneys for the accused gunman in the Walmart case have called for a thorough investigation into the allegations. And, the Hoffman family’s court-appointed attorney Justin Underwood says Rosales and her senior staff should be held accountable.
“You make a plea to law enforcement and you say, if nothing is done here because of what happened to these people, what is to deter someonefrom doing something similar to somebody else," Underwood said in an interview with KTEP.
Resignations and strained relationships with staff
Rosales had her entire office of nearly 200 employees reapply for their positions when she took over last year. The rookie DA was never able to staff the office with the same number of people again, according to county records obtained through the Texas Public Information act.
Records show former DA Jaime Esparza left the office with 187 employees compared to the 171-member staff in October.
The El Paso County Human Resources Department provided KTEP with letters of resignation, exit interviews and the DA office’s employment data between Jan. 1, 2021 and October 5, 2022.
During Rosales’ first two years, just over 60 staff members resigned from their positions in her office, records show. The resignations were a mix of employees from the previous administration and Rosales’ own hires.
Records show 15 assistant district attorneys and 12 senior trial attorneys resigned from their positions over two years. Some took jobs in private practice, in other Texas DA’s offices, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or with the city of El Paso.
A few also joined the public defender’s office and county attorney’s office, according to the State Bar of Texas’ website profiles and LinkedIn pages.
The list of employees who resigned over two years also included victim advocates, investigators, office managers and secretaries. Exit interviews offered a glimpse into employees’ reasons for leaving, many stating they were paid well.
While a few shared little detail on their time in the office or appreciation for experience, some departing employees hinted at a strained relationship with leadership. They also listed a need for more training and communication in the office.
Kirstein Ritchie, a former senior trial attorney, resigned in June after serving the office for nearly three years. She noted in an exit interview that many attorneys working in the office at the time had “little to no formal training in prosecution of cases.”
According to Ritchie’s interview, she was a prosecutor overseeing child sex cases and deaths of babies. She said the DA’s office needed more personnel to handle the caseload.
“This made my job hard and our unit’s job hard when cases were getting dismissed when a little training/work/policy/and procedure could have been used and implemented to prosecute the case successfully,” she said. “Morale is low and we are understaffed. We are overworked and underappreciated.”
Longtime prosecutor and assistant district attorney Tom Darnold resigned in April after 28 years with the office. He said the new administration was still “finding its footing,” when it came to showing appreciation to employees.
Darnold in his exit interview said morale was “historically good. Has taken a dip with the new administration. It’s tough here, the people who stayed from the old administration have struggled with the new administration.”
Last year, Angie Castillo, a former director of the victim assistance program, left her job after being hired by Rosales for seven months. She noted in her exit interview that there was “little communication from the top down.”
“Upper management doesn’t want anything in writing so everyone doesn’t get the same message and communication is very inefficient if you can’t have a written policy sent out,” she said. “There is a lot of mistrust, fear and paranoia that is guiding many decisions.”
Former employee points out confidentiality agreement
Former senior trial attorney Teresa Garcia resigned from her position in June 2021 after serving six months on the job. Garcia said she’d not been provided with a written form of protocol of expectations and was concerned with staffing, according to her exit interview.
She also pointed out she was asked to sign a “confidentiality agreement” when she began working for the office. She did not explain what the agreement pertained to.
“Managers expect us to have common knowledge to handle situations but they never share the procedures or expectations,” she said in her exit interview.