Friday, May 19, 2006 | 7:21 a.m.
Is anyone going to run against District Attorney David Roger?
The question had been asked by many in the legal community during the last year as it appeared Roger would run uncontested for re-election.
That all changed last week when Deputy Attorney General Patrick Ferguson, a Democrat, and defense attorney Frank Cremen, a Republican, both seemingly came out of nowhere to run against Roger.
Although Cremen said that he will wait a few weeks to unveil his message and campaign, Ferguson has entered the fray swinging.
"I decided to run because I saw what was happening at the district attorney's office, specifically the mass exodus of experienced and talented prosecutors like Ed Kane, Melissa De La Garza and Gary Booker," Ferguson said.
"When you see the brightest and best not only jumping ship, but actually going across the street to join the public defender's office, you know something is wrong."
He said that in talking with dozens of people who work for or have left the district attorney's office, "my sense is that people there don't feel like they can approach Roger or that he is sensitive to their needs."
Ferguson has been a prosecutor for seven years, three with the attorney general's office, two with the Las Vegas city attorney's office and two as a deputy district attorney under former District Attorney, and now District Judge, Stewart Bell.
"With Stew, there was never a day you didn't feel you couldn't walk into his office and tell him your problems," Ferguson said. "I get the impression the exact opposite is the norm under Roger. It seems to be a culture of distrust has developed there."
Roger said this week he would not make any apologies for how his office is run or how it "keeps our community safe."
Advised of Ferguson's campaign broadside, Roger leveled a shot of his own at the backgrounds of his two opponents:
"The voters last time made it clear they wanted a career prosecutor as the chief law enforcement officer in Clark County. I have never, ever, defended a criminal in my career.
"I don't expect it to be any different this election, as the people want a career prosecutor and not a career defense attorney."
Roger was referring to Ferguson's 18 months as a defense attorney in Northern California and Cremen's more than 20 years as a defense attorney. The latter also spent four years as a deputy district attorney.
In response to the allegations that poor morale and his office policies led to office turnover and difficulty hiring deputies, Roger said that such charges come with the territory:
"We have probably the largest law firm in the state of Nevada, and just as in any organization there will always be people who are unhappy and leave. Just as people have left our office and gone to the public defender's office or private practice, people also leave the public defender's office and private practice to join our office."
"There are also people who come to the office and get a couple years' experience and jump to the defense bar to make a better living for themselves," Roger said. "It's normal."
Seven of 74 positions in the DA's criminal prosecution division are currently vacant. The public defender's office currently has just one opening.
The vacancies exacerbate an already heavy caseload for Clark County prosecutors, who handle about three times the cases of prosecutors in major Southern California counties - Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino.
Roger said that it was too early to tell exactly why it was difficult to fill the open positions more quickly. It could be attributed, in part, to county commissioners changing the pay scale for deputies, he said. Salary structure changes were made two years ago in both the DA's and public defender's offices, lengthening the time between raises from 18 months to two years.
County chief administrative officer Don Burnett said this week, however, that the structure would not affect starting salaries for new prosecutors. And he defended the change by saying that many prosecutors and public defenders had been receiving 10 percent salary increases yearly under the old plan.
"I don't think you can find that kind of salary growth among county employees anywhere in the country," Burnett said.
Newly hired prosecutors and public defenders earn between $61,353 and $95,091 annually, depending on experience. Burnett said he was unsure how that would rank nationally.
Roger said his office had been interviewing many candidates, but was being very selective: "We could fill the office with warm bodies, but I feel the office and the community deserves better than that."
One former prosecutor said, however, that there were other reasons for the vacancies and the time it takes to hire replacements.
"I've never worked in a more unhappy work environment with a lower morale than I did at the district attorney's office these last few years," said Ed Kane, an 11-year deputy DA who left the office April 10 and who was mentioned by Ferguson in his attack on Roger.
Kane said he decided to leave the office for a job with the public defender after he was moved from prosecuting cases to a "desk job in screening new criminal complaints." A career courtroom attorney, Kane also spent six years with the U.S. attorney's office, and said his views were shared by other former or current county prosecutors.
He attributes much of the alleged morale issue to Roger's rule that each prosecutor take at least five cases to trial yearly. If a prosecutor didn't meet that quota, Kane said, he or she was not given promotions or raises or was demoted.
Roger defended his five-trial rule, saying that while it did play some role in promotions and raises, it was only one aspect of deputies' performances that he considers. And he declined to respond to Kane's comments or those from anonymous sources about how he runs the office:
"It's not my practice to engage in policy debate with former employees, and I wish Mr. Kane the best in his future."
Roger praised his prosecutors, pointing to increased targeting and convictions of habitual offenders, who he said commit 80 percent of crimes.