Matthew Leusink, the new Waushara County district attorney, has no doubt that he has a lot of work ahead of him.
Leusink was elected to his position in November, winning nearly 70% of the vote. The Waushara County native ran as a Republican against Laura Waite, who was appointed as Waushara County district attorney by Gov. Tony Evers in April.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Waite had made headlines for a months-long, unexplained absence from the district attorney’s office. An October report from the Green Bay TV news station WBAY said office staff hadn’t seen or heard from Waite since June 26.
Waushara County Circuit Court Judge Guy Dutcher held a hearing in August to make a finding that Waite was absent and appointed Ruth Zouski, county corporation counsel, as special administrative prosecutor. Leusink said Zouski hired a full-time assistant district attorney and also received help from two retired prosecutors.
“It has been getting a little bit better since they hired that assistant DA,” Leusink said. “I think he’s helped to kind of get more cases issued.”
Leusink is joining the office on Dec. 7 as an assistant district attorney, which will allow one of the retired prosecutors to step away from the office. One of his priorities upon assuming the role of district attorney on Jan. 4 is to get staff positions in the office filled once again and then work through its backlog of cases.
“It’ll take a little bit of time, but I think eventually we’ll be able to get back to where we were before,” Leusink said.
Leusink, who previously served as an assistant district attorney in Walworth County, talked to the Wisconsin Law Journal about his plans to restore confidence in the Waushara County district attorney’s office.
Wisconsin Law Journal: When did you first decide you were going to run for Waushara County district attorney?
Leusink: I’m from the area originally. My parents live outside of Wautoma. It’s been my aspiration to become a district attorney, and there are only so few avenues that you have to get to that.
I had heard about the opening when the previous DA left to be an assistant U.S. attorney, so I applied for the appointment back in November. I didn’t hear anything for several months, and then the governor reopened the application process. I actually got fairly irritated about that. If he had just appointed someone after that immediate period when they were taking applications, I probably would have just moved on, but I did not like how the open position was being handled. So then I started to look into running, and once I found out that the Waushara County Republican Party would be supportive of me, I decided to run.
WLJ: What does the case backlog look like for Waushara County right now with Waite’s absence and staffing vacancies?
Leusink: That has been getting a little bit better since they hired that assistant DA. I think he’s helped to kind of get more cases issued. I know from talking with law enforcement that previously there had been a bit of a backlog. I have no doubts that it’s going to be a lot of work once I get in just to kind of get us to the position that we were in both pre-COVID and before the former DA leaving. I just know from my experience in Walworth County that we have quite a backlog because when you don’t have jury trials going on, there’s less holding defendants’ feet to the fire to resolve their case. It’s going to take quite a while to get caught up with everything.
WLJ: How do you plan to get the office caught up and back to normal operations?
Leusink: One of the important things is to get us back to full staff. Once I get sworn in, there will be that additional assistant district attorney to hire. A paralegal is retiring, so we have to fill that spot. Our victim-witness coordinator is also retiring, so we need to fill that as well. We’re in the process of doing that. It’s also just a matter of getting caught up with referrals, getting them issued, making sure that they are dealt with.
WLJ: What do you see as your biggest challenge as district attorney?
Leusink: I would say restoring confidence in the office from law enforcement because I’ve talked with law enforcement, and I know they have been concerned about what’s going on. It’s going to be important to open up the dialogue between law enforcement and the office so that they feel comfortable coming to our office and telling us when they don’t agree with things that we’re doing or if they have questions about things that need to be done.
WLJ: What kind of policies would you like to see implemented?
Leusink: Once we’ve gotten caught up with the backlog due to COVID and the current situation, (I’d like to see) some actions done on referrals within 30 days of receiving them, whether deciding to issue or asking for additional information. The other one is changes to agreements within two weeks of trial need to be approved. That’s simply to ensure that you’re not making decisions too hastefully. You’re doing it for the right reasons, not to avoid having a jury trial. In general, I want to promote an open dialogue with law enforcement and with victims. I take the requests and wishes of victims very seriously when I’m deciding what kind of offers to make and what kind of changes to offer.
WLJ: How are you going to promote an open dialogue with law enforcement?
Leusink: A lot of it is being in regular contact with them. (We) have an on-call system during the nighttime hours, so they’ll have that resource, but also doing training for warrant writing, testimony in court, legal updates. Also taking part in ride alongs. I’m trying to do that in as many communities in the county as I can. It’s going to be a lot of just being willing to do jury trials, to take the cases to trial that are a little bit tougher and not simply settling something to avoid a trial. Once law enforcement sees that you’re willing to do that, they’re more willing to trust your judgment, and they’ll listen to you more when you tell them that you need something done in a certain way.