Former employees say DA’s office ‘hostile’

CHEYENNE — On the second day of the disciplinary hearing of Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove, two former employees testified that the DA’s office under Manlove had been “chaotic” and “hostile,” preventing work from getting done and leading to their departures.

Formal charges filed last year with the State Bar allege that Manlove mishandled the prosecution of cases in Laramie County and inappropriately dismissed certain cases, and that she created a hostile work environment for employees of the district attorney’s office.

Following the hearing, which may last until Feb. 11, a three-person panel chosen from the Bar’s full Board of Professional Responsibility will decide whether to recommend disciplinary measures against Manlove to the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Former office manager Amanda Santee, who was hired at the beginning of Manlove’s tenure after working on her 2018 campaign, kept contemporaneous notes about happenings in the office after experiencing what she called “constant chaos” in her first month of work there.

Santee previously worked as a legal assistant for 12 consecutive years under three former Laramie County district attorneys.

While the Laramie County DA’s office was always busy, Santee said the big difference was how Manlove treated her employees, as well as law enforcement. Confusion created by constant change caused bottlenecks and miscommunication between agencies, she said.

She described a culture of retaliation, fear of retaliation, preferential treatment and setting people who had reported something up for failure. Staff consistently worked unpaid hours and were expected to answer emails, texts and sometimes phone calls on evenings and weekends.

Santee said she was constantly receiving calls about errors in legal documents and fielded many about attorneys missing hearings. Her journal entries described law enforcement reaching out to the DA’s office about charges not being filed, and continuous issues with one particular legal assistant and her interactions with law enforcement and the courts.

She wrote about an instance where a Laramie County Sheriff’s deputy called over for paperwork on inmates who had been sentenced more than 30 days earlier and still had not been transferred from the jail to a Wyoming Department of Corrections facility.

She said Manlove would ask why certain tasks weren’t done over the weekend, and required an employee to work from home during an illness, even though she’d been excused by a doctor’s note.

In expressing frustration about an issue with file sorting and organization, Santee said Manlove told legal assistants that if she found out who had caused the issue, she “would rip out some body part and shove it down their f---ing throat.”

She said there were nicknames for judges within the office, and that Manlove referred to Laramie County District Judge Catherine Rogers as a “c” on multiple occasions.

Following the death of Manlove’s friend and colleague Angela Dougherty inside the DA’s office from a brain aneurysm, Santee said Manlove told one of her former attorneys, Rachel Berkness, that she wished Berkness had been the one to die in the office of a brain aneurysm.

During cross-examination, Stephen Melchior, Manlove’s attorney, said another employee had told the story differently in an email to Bar Counsel Mark Gifford – that Manlove had told Berkness she would rather die of a stroke than continue to have Berkness work for her.

Melchior said Santee, as the supervisor of most of the non-attorney staff within the office, should have been responsible for making sure those people got their work done. Santee said she didn’t think the office environment allowed people to get their work done.

The chaos in Manlove’s office was caused by several things, Santee said. The firing of all but one staff attorney on her first day in office meant a lack of institutional knowledge. Operations were constantly changing, and it wasn’t clear who was responsible for what.

People were afraid to speak up to Manlove, and when they did, she wasn’t receptive, Santee said, responding with things like “They’re picking on me” or “They’re not going to tell us what to do.”

Santee said employees had expressed to her that the stress of working under Manlove was impacting their physical and mental health, and even their marriages. The weight of having to constantly listen to that kind of distress affected her, too.

“That’s a heavy load to carry,” she said.

Melchior raised several objections throughout Santee’s testimony, which he said was hearsay. Special Bar Counsel Weston W. Reeves said the testimony was admissible because it was considered business records.

Each time, Melchior’s objections were overruled by Christopher Hawks, the chair of the Board of Professional Responsibility’s hearing panel.

When asked by Reeves if she was afraid of Manlove, Santee said she was, and that she feared retaliation if the hearing had a “negative result.”

Santee left the DA’s office in December 2019. She said the office “never became operational.”

“It remained chaotic from day one to the day I left,” she said.

Former staff attorney Cameron Geeting worked in the DA’s office between April 2019 and October 2020, primarily prosecuting DUI and traffic offenses. He said public shaming by Manlove was the norm, and attorneys took turns getting yelled at in front of their colleagues.

On two separate occasions, Geeting said Manlove had called him “chickens” during interactions in the office.

While being cross-examined by Melchior, Geeting said he couldn’t point to anything that showed Manlove was not doing her job. Still, Geeting, who now works as a legal assistant for Judge Rogers, said he’d told the judge in the course of a job interview that the environment was “hostile” in the DA’s office.

Following budget cuts from the state, Geeting described a process where attorneys were told they should go through their caseload and find about 100 cases that could not be dismissed. He estimated having 100-200 cases in his workload dismissed after this process.

While he understood a “triage” was necessary, he said he didn’t feel they’d needed to be as aggressive as they’d been.

And although he said there was “good work” done there that he was proud of, he said he eventually got tired of being spoken to the way he was. It was also an office that didn’t tolerate dissent, which he felt is necessary in a prosecutor’s office.

When asked by the hearing panel if the environment in the office had made it difficult to do his job, Geeting responded: “I’d have to say yes, because it made me leave.”

Geeting said he was the first attorney to depart the DA’s office in what had previously been described as a “mass exodus.” He said within two or three months of his last day, probably six attorneys left. He couldn’t say what the reasoning was for all of them, but he said at least two expressed that their treatment within the office contributed to their resignations.

Laramie County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Lee was the first witness called by Reeves on Thursday. Lee continued answering questions similar to those asked of District Court Judges Rogers and Steven Sharpe, who testified Wednesday.

The three judges were among the seven who wrote and signed a letter to Bar Counsel Gifford in December 2020, which expressed concern about Manlove’s ability to effectively do her job.

Lee estimated that if Manlove had only been prosecuting violent felonies, domestic violence cases, repeat DUIs and felony drug cases, like she outlined in a September 2020 letter to judges and law enforcement following proposed state budget cuts to her office, she would be forgoing the prosecution of 70% of her workload.

Melchior said Lee’s arrival at the 70% figure was “pure speculation.” Lee rejected that, saying he’d relied on an estimate of statewide and national crime data to come to that conclusion.

Lee said that, in the eight years he’d been a judge, circuit court had experienced about a 16-17% budget cut.

“I have never thought that one of my options was to say, I’m not going to do 70% of my cases,” he said. “I’m sure if I said that, I would be before the judicial ethics committee tomorrow.”

Lee said he believed Manlove “substantially followed through on what she said she would do in her letter” between October and mid-December of 2020, though he couldn’t say how many dismissals in circuit court could be attributed to her policy decision.

Melchior also questioned the notion that Lee had good intentions in signing the letter to Bar Counsel, saying that Lee had said in his deposition that the goal of the letter was to remove Manlove from office.

Like Sharpe and Rogers, Lee defended his signing of the letter, saying he’d hoped it would be motivation to Manlove to “do her job.”