Sant dismisses 3 deputy prosecutors

Three Franklin County deputy prosecutors officially will be fired Monday once the newly elected prosecutor takes office.

However two of the three women, who received notice earlier this month, already have found jobs across the river with plans to start next week.

Michelle McMillen, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor, will take a defense contract in Benton County Superior Court. Amy Harris will go to work as a deputy prosecutor in the Benton County Prosecutor's Office.

After the pending dismissals became public, Franklin County Prosecutor-elect Shawn Sant would not confirm that he was letting go of McMillen, Harris or Erica Davis.

"I'm not in a position to do any of those things now. What I can say is, obviously I've talked with all the staff and tried to let them know what my thoughts were and where I intend to go in January," Sant initially told the Herald. "Just like with any personnel changes, that's not something I want to share. It's something, obviously once January comes around and once changes are made, we might be in a position to indicate where we are going and why, if any, of the changes are made. But I think it's premature at this time."

Sant talked to the three employees about his plans to fire them, and backed the conversations up with letters regarding their employment status. When told the Herald received copies of the letters, Sant said they are "at-will" employees and the notifications speak for themselves.

"I really don't have any additional comment," Sant said when later asked about the letters. "This is just something I tried to do to meet with everybody before. (Prosecutor Steve Lowe) had suggested I come in and meet with everybody and let them know where they stood, and that's kind of the purpose of me letting them know ... where they stood with me and what would likely take place at the beginning of the year."

The Tri-City lawyer defeated 16-year incumbent Lowe at the polls in November. Sant, a Republican, had worked for Lowe, a Democrat, in the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office from 2004-06 as a deputy prosecutor with cases in District Court and Juvenile Court.

The prosecutor's office has 25 employees -- 10 of whom are lawyers, not including the elected prosecutor. They handle criminal cases, civil litigation for the county and child support matters.

Sant, 40, will be sworn in along with the county's other newly elected officials at 9 a.m. Jan. 3 in the Pasco courthouse's historical courtroom.

He told the Herald shortly after the general election that he was going to meet with all lawyers in the office "to make sure they feel confident in going forward with me as their boss."

He said he had not made any decisions at that time about staffing changes.

A couple of weeks after having individual meetings with each lawyer, Sant said he was contacted by the employees who asked to know about their job security "sooner than later."

So Dec. 13, he met with McMillen, Harris and Davis, and handed them letters that included: "Please accept this letter as notice that I do not intend to extend a deputy prosecuting attorney appointment to you effective January 3, 2011. As you know, deputy prosecuting attorneys serve at the will of the elected prosecutor."

Sant offered the employees three "personal days" Jan. 3-5 "to assist you with the transition and job search." He advised them to speak with human resources or the office manager "to discuss remaining vacation and sick hours that have been accrued."

McMillen and Harris declined to be interviewed. Davis could not be reached.

McMillen has worked in the prosecutor's office since Jan. 3, 2000. Davis started Oct. 27, 2003, handling child support cases and some civil matters. And Harris joined the staff Nov. 20, 2006, most recently serving as the designated gang deputy.

Once McMillen got word that she would be out of a job in the new year, she quickly found work taking over the Thursday contract of lawyer Richard Johnston, who gave up the position to focus on his health after being hospitalized in November. McMillen now will represent indigent defendants in Benton County Superior Court.

Sant, who had a Wednesday defense contract in Benton County Superior Court, has been replaced by his former law firm colleague, Scott Johnson, said Eric Hsu with the Office of Public Defense in Benton and Franklin counties.

Davis -- a single mother like McMillen -- reportedly has not yet found another job.

Harris will begin doing Benton County District Court work and some felony cases for the Benton County Prosecutor's Office. Prosecutor Andy Miller said he doesn't often do lateral hires in his office, so he offered Harris more of an entry-level position, and she accepted it.

"Our office is in a state of flux," said Miller, who is losing a couple of longtime deputy prosecutors. "We hired (Harris) on the criminal side, and we were able to because of her good reputation and experience. We were able to start her at about essentially the same salary she's making in Franklin County."

Sant also handed out letters to the office's other deputy prosecutors notifying them that he plans to keep them on staff in the new year.

"Since I'm really not in office yet, any decision I make is not in binding force until Jan. 3 ... but I wanted to provide notice of what my intentions were once taking office," he told the Herald. Sant added that he didn't want people to show up on their first day of work with him, only to learn they were out of a job.

Sant said he had been encouraged by Lowe during the transition to meet with the office staff, answer any questions they might have and resolve any concerns.

Sant said he is trying to connect with school district officials to address juvenile crime and how those issues affect the schools, and is preparing to oversee the installation of a new software program that should streamline efficiency in the prosecutor's office so police reports and other documents can be shared electronically.

He also wants to make sure law enforcement officials and other county employees are comfortable during the transition.

"Everybody I've talked with has been pretty positive for the most part," he said. I want to "build on what we have now and improve those relationships with the community. It's my goal, and I think we're on track to do that."

w Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com