ELLSWORTH, Maine — An experienced prosecutor or an outsider who wants to make reforms?
Voters in Hancock and Washington counties will have to choose between those distinct candidate characterizations when they elect a new district attorney on Nov. 4.
Bill Entwisle, a Democrat and assistant district attorney in the two counties for 11 years, said his experience makes him the more qualified candidate in the race. Matt Foster, a local Republican who has been in private practice for 11 years, said confidence in the office has suffered in recent years but that he can restore it.
Both are vying to take over the position from Carletta “Dee” Bassano, who was elected in 2010 to replace her boss, longtime District Attorney Michael Povich. Bassano decided not to seek re-election earlier this year.
Foster said Thursday that Bassano is a good attorney, but the office has not been well managed. He said the alternative drug court program in Hancock County is under-used and that the office could be more effective if prosecutors were better prepared to help each other with cases.
He said first-time offenders often face overly-stiff charges, which can put a heavy burden on state resources, and that the district attorney should be more pro-active in the community by speaking to schools and meeting with local groups.
Foster also brought up Mary Kellett, an assistant district attorney who works in the Ellsworth office. He said that the manner in which Kellett handled the Vladek Filler case is an example of how the office has been poorly run.
Kellett was sanctioned last year after the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar determined she violated rules of the bar in prosecuting an alleged sexual assault case against Filler five years ago. In his complaint to the board of overseers, Filler accused Kellett of making inappropriate comments during closing arguments at his first trial in January 2009 and by suppressing and failing to disclose evidence that Filler sought during the discovery process for his legal defense leading up to that trial.
The grievance panel that heard Filler’s complaint agreed, and Kellett subsequently was ordered to complete six hours of continuing legal training. In addition, some procedural changes aimed at preventing similar violations were made at the district attorney’s office in the wake of the complaint.
Foster said “everybody makes mistakes” and that the district attorney’s office will always have its critics. But, he added, there still are lingering compliance issues at the office when it comes to rules for providing defendants with potential evidence — issues that should have been corrected in the wake of Kellett being disciplined.
Foster said experience in an office that has mishandled cases and continues to mishandle them is not a strong selling point.
“I’d rather have zero years of experience [as a prosecutor] in a bad administration than 11 years experience,” he said.
From Entwisle’s point of view, significant experience in prosecuting cases is not something to be dismissed so easily. He said he is “proud” of his record and that of his colleagues in the two-county district, who he said have been strong advocates for crime victims and have striven to be fair.
“I think it’s critical,” Entwisle said of his time in the office. “I’ve spent 11 years doing this job, and I don’t know know how you replace that.”
Entwisle said he would take his own approach to the job and would not try to mimic those of his predecessors, but he added he still will be obligated to fairly assess and prosecute whatever cases come through the office. He said that more than 3,000 cases were filed last year in Hancock and Washington counties — a volume that requires some skill and expertise to handle effectively.
Entwisle said he supports Kellett, whom he described as an “excellent” prosecutor. Filler’s complaint stemmed from actions that occurred more than five years ago under a different district attorney, he said, and since then, the office has “evolved” along with the rest of the criminal justice system in how it operates.
He declined to comment on Foster’s claim about alleged compliance issues in the district attorney’s office. He said residents of the two counties can be confident that the public is being well-served in how the district attorney’s office handles the thousands of cases that come up each year.
“As prosecutors, we are held to the highest ethical standard because of the position that we hold and the work that we do,” Entwisle said. “We welcome the scrutiny.”