Exit interviews show strained relationship between senior staff and leadership in El Paso DA’s Office

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – At least 20 individuals left their positions with the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office this year, though many said they were paid well.

Departures include division chiefs, senior trial attorneys, and a director of the victim assistance program. Turnover is always expected with a change in leadership and was expected when Yvonne Rosales took over the reins of the office in January.

But departing employees hinted there is a much more significant concern about leadership in the office and how the office’s top employees are interacting with staff.

Angie Castillo, director of the victim assistance program, began working in the office in January. But seven months later, she notified her supervisors she was resigning even without having another job in place.

“It should say a lot about morale that I felt I needed to leave even with no job to go to,” she wrote in an exit interview. “Elected official and her top management could have treated me with respect. Not seen me as a difficult person because I was willing to stand up for my employees and to call out behavior or words that are inappropriate in the workplace.”

Castillo also said there is a concern about communication from leadership.

“There is very little communication from the top down,” she wrote. “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, so we are all on the same page. This feels very fishy to most employees.”

Castillo’s account was echoed by other senior staff who announced their resignations from the district attorney’s office this year. Documents obtained by KTSM 9 News suggest a strained relationship between staff and leadership in the office.

The El Paso County Human Resources Department released exit interviews, letters of resignation, and checklists associated with employee departures between Jan. 1 and Sept. 23. In all, there were 20 departures between that period, according to the documents released by the county.

The District Attorney’s Office declined a recorded interview but sent a statement in response to some of the claims found in the exit interviews. But District Attorney Yvonne Rosales sent a statement.

“One of my campaign commitments was to operate an administration that was more effective and efficient than the prior administration. I am proud of the personnel that we have, as they have proven capable of handling the same caseload. It was fully anticipated that there would be some turnover during our first year in office, as this was the time for new and old personnel to become adjusted to our new higher standards. We have a high expectation of professionalism and work ethic from our employees; unfortunately, some of those individuals were incapable of meeting those expectations, and others moved to federal employment positions which offer higher salaries. Our office is no different from any other District Attorney’s Office in the State of Texas in the backlog of cases due to the pandemic. In addition, our new administration found that many cases had not been prepared, by several employees from the prior administration, after I won the election in July 2020. It is disheartening that many employees from the prior administration did not continue to work on their cases and failed the community and the victims of crime before I took office.”

Yvonne Rosales, El Paso County District Attorney

Rosales took some criticism when she began her tenure as district attorney when her opponent, James Montoya, revealed she would have 200 employees reapply for their positions and that 50 staff members would not continue their jobs.

She had defeated Montoya in a Democratic primary after long-time DA Jaime Esparza announced he would not run for reelection.

At the time, Rosales defended her decision, saying she would ensure that “well-rounded” individuals would fill positions. And, in July, Rosales defended a decision to hire young prosecutors out of law school.

Mathew Jacob Engelbaum, a senior trial attorney, hired during Esparza’s administration, also announced his resignation in June. In his exit interview, Engelbaum said many employees began taking up extra work.

“There was not a lot of thought put into firing half the staff,” he stated. “Feels like they were working ‘their (expletive) off’ because of all the employees who were fired. With COVID and everything, it is frustrating. Certain people who have worked hard were not acknowledged.”

The documents appear to show there was a period when staff began to leave. Between April and June, the office lost two legal secretaries, four senior trial attorneys, a director of the victim assistance program, and three top-level individuals.

Confidentiality agreement

Teresa Garcia, a senior trial attorney hired by Rosales’ administration, resigned in just six months. She wrote in an exit interview that she was asked to sign a “confidentiality agreement” when she started and did not elaborate further.

“The fact of COVID is difficult to deal with criminal cases if you add the no to poor management. HR should be wondering why in a week; the attorneys have submitted their resignation letter,” she wrote. “Is impossible to have effective prosecutors being short staff with the number of attorneys we have.”

Not all employees who left their positions indicated they were upset with their time as an employee. One legal secretary said she was going because she got a job with the federal government.

Rolando Morales, a senior trial attorney, said he was making a career-based decision.

“This was a career-based decision that quite simply realizing the trajectory of my legal career with my own personal goals. I am truly grateful for your consideration and opportunity to serve my community in such an important role,” he wrote.

A record of employees in the DA’s office shows 167 individuals currently working for the office. A document shows there are 22 listed senior trial attorneys. Four were hired this year, and others served in the previous administration.

The document also shows there are three division chiefs. Two are from Esparza’s administration, and one, Curtis Cox, was hired this year. Out of 18 total trial attorneys, there were 13 hired this year.

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