Rutland County weighs candidates for state's attorney
08/28/02 12:00AM By Nina Keck
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(Host) State's attorneys are Vermont's public prosecutors. They decide whether or not someone should be charged with a crime and they hold criminals responsible by bringing cases to court and prosecuting them.
For the first time in twenty years, voters in Rutland County will have a choice for state's attorney. Incumbent James Mongeon, was appointed to the job in 1980, and has run unopposed since. But two opponents hope to unseat him this year.
As VPR's Nina Keck reports, the first challenge will come September 10 in the Republican primary.
(Keck) Former Rutland County State's Attorney John Liccardi says county prosecutors wield tremendous power not only over criminals, but over local law enforcement and social service agencies as well.
(Liccardi) "Those agencies have got to be confident that the cases that they bring to the public prosecutor will be dealt with fairly and in a manner that makes them comfortable in what they're doing. If they're not confident that the state's attorney will back them where appropriate, then they're not going to have much enthusiasm for what they're doing. So that's one very important aspect of the job."
(Keck) That's what Brian Marthage says is happening in Rutland County right now. Marthage is a deputy state's attorney for Bennington County. Before that, he was in private practice in Rutland. The 36-year-old-Pawlet resident says local law enforcement agents asked him to run for state's attorney because they were frustrated with some of incumbent Jim Mongeon's policies.
(Marthage) "One of the things that bothers officers is that there are some types of cases that Jim won't prosecute. For example, domestic assault where the victim has decided that she doesn't want to actively participate in the prosecution. It's my understanding that those cases are dismissed, not moved forward. Paper cases - embezzlement, bad check charges - there's been frustration that those types of cases have not been prosecuted at certain times because Jim perceives the caseload to be too heavy. The law is the law is the law, regardless of what your caseload. You need to enforce the law and prioritizing like that is a slippery slope."
(Keck) Rutland City Police Captain Scott Tucker says the police department's relationship with the state's attorney's office is good, but he says frustration and confusion over certain cases does exist.
(Tucker) "We live and die based on what the state's attorney does. There are a lot of crimes - quality of life crimes that we bring - disorderly conducts, noise complaints those kinds of low level misdemeanor types of crimes. And those are the kinds of crimes that usually affect how people feel about their community. The state's attorney has made decisions in the past that some of these crimes would not be brought because of caseload in his office. The police officer generally puts a lot of effort in their case and so there is where you see some of the discord."
(Keck) Brian Marthage says he'd like to see a prosecutor at the police department on a regular basis to answer questions and to interact with officers. He says that would go a long way to bolster confidence and improve communications. But Rutland County State's Attorney James Mongeon says his relationship with local law enforcement agents is strong and he says he and his staff already work hard to maintain that, sometimes meeting with officers at 6:00 a.m. to accommodate different shifts. His job, he says, is all about balancing needs with resources. And with current staffing limitations, he says his office simply can't address every misdemeanor brought by police:
(Mongeon) "There's frustration throughout. And yet we have increased significantly the filings this year. If you look at statistics from the court administrator's office, we are filing more than 100 misdemeanors every month - that's a full range of cases. We are also filing a significant number of felonies."
(Keck) Mongeon says he and his four deputies handled over 15-hundred cases by the start of this month - well ahead of last years' numbers. He says frustration among law enforcement agents might be eased if police chose to handle more low-level crimes outside the court system -- using community-based panels such as the Youth First and Diversion programs now operating in Rutland.
(Mongeon) "That means it does not consume resources in this office, it does not take resources from the court. And yet the police are still able to give the neighbors the knowledge that it has been dealt with and dealt with at the local level."
(Keck) While low level cases deserve attention, Mongeon says his office is grappling with a growing number of violent, drug-related crimes, fatal DUIs and murder. The 54-year-old says he's proud of his track record in dealing with them.
(Mongeon) "There is the tattoo shop slaying with a murder conviction and a life sentence. There was the Griswald case, which was aggravated sexual assault. Again, life imprisonment case with guilty after trial. The motel clerk who was murdered - again, guilty as charged and life imprisonment. Those are the kind of cases that people look at and say, those are important. That's what we elect a state's attorney to work on and that's what we want."
(Keck) And Mongeon says his 24 years of experience in the job is a huge asset. Challenger Brian Marthage says that experience can be helpful, but he says in this race, it's not the most important factor voters should consider.
(Marthage) "The problem in Rutland is that there is a divide now between the law enforcement community and the state's attorney's office. And Jim's been there for 24 years and that problem still exists, so at some point in time it can't be the institution. It has to be the individual who's leading it."
(Keck) Republicans Brian Marthage and James Mongeon will face off in the Republican primary September 10. The winner of that race will face Democratic challenger Lamar Enzor, a deputy state's attorney for Windsor County, in November.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Nina Keck in Rutland.