Whoever is elected chief prosecutor for the district that covers Kennebec and Somerset counties will be running an office in which almost all the assistant district attorneys are new.

At least eight of the 11 prosecutors in place in January — including the acting district attorney — have left or are leaving the office serving District IV, taking with them a combined total of 138 years of job experience.

“There’s never been anything like this, and I’ve been district attorney 22 years,” said Stephanie Anderson, Cumberland County district attorney who is also president of the Maine Prosecutors’ Association. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s staggering.”

The new district attorney will be either Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, who opted against running for re-election to the Legislature and who has been a state prosecutor in Oregon and Maine; or Darrick Banda, a Republican from Manchester who worked five years as an assistant district attorney in the Kennebec and Somerset counties district before going to the defense bar.

Acting District Attorney Alan Kelley said he will leave in January as soon as the new district attorney is sworn in, even though both Maloney and Banda have asked Kelley to remain. Meantime, Kelley said he will “try to keep the office functioning at the highest level possible until the new district attorney takes over.”

“The office is going from being one of the most experienced and most respected in the state to being one of the least experienced, regardless of who the next district attorney is,” Kelley said. “The reality is this office has been devastated, and it will be up to the new district attorney to rebuild it.”

Maloney and Banda want to fill the two years remaining in the term of Evert Fowle, who left the district attorney post earlier this year to become a district court judge.

Maloney and Banda will meet for a debate from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the University of Maine at Augusta. The debate, sponsored by the Kennebec Journal and the UMA Alumni Association, will be moderated by Daniel Wathen, who served 20 years on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Twice since Fowle left the office, Democrats in the two counties voted to nominate Maloney over Kelley, first to serve as interim district attorney and second to be the nominee on the November ballot. Gov. Paul LePage did not act on the interim appointment, so Kelley, the longtime former deputy district attorney who had the nod from Fowle, remained acting district attorney.

The contest between Maloney and Kelley split the party committee membership. The vote in July, for instance, was 157-130.

“If Alan Kelley had gotten endorsement of the Democratic Party, I don’t think any of these people would be leaving,” Anderson said. “You know who is going to suffer? The people of Kennebec and Somerset counties. You had a man who was a dedicated career prosecutor, one of the most respected and admired, willing to step into the gap left by Evert’s appointment to the bench.”

The lawyers departing or who have left the district attorney’s office since January and their years of experience in the job are Kelly, 33 years; Fowle, 27 years; Paul Rucha, 23 years, who is now an assistant attorney general; James Mitchell Jr., 21 years, who will be an assistant district attorney in Aroostook County starting Nov. 1; Brad Grant, 15 years, who is leaving Jan. 4, 2013, to join the Waterville law firm of Ferris, Gurney & Crook; Patricia K. Poulin, 11 years, who is joining the Child Protective Division of the attorney general’s office; Neil McLean, five years, who is working for the federal government; and David W. Jackson Jr., three years, who is executive director of the state Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers.

District IV is a busy prosecutorial district. In 2011, it handled almost 8,000 criminal cases, 850 of which were probation violations. In comparison, Cumberland County handled almost 10,200 criminal cases in the same year.

“I don’t see how the incoming district attorney is going to navigate this crisis,” said Anderson, of the prosecutors’ association. “You are losing almost all of your institutional knowledge and memory. Because the new district attorney is coming from the outside, it makes the job even more difficult.

“On top of learning the business practices and how the paperwork moves around and who makes what kind of decisions, you’re missing key people you would otherwise rely on.”

Even amid the departures, three new attorneys have come on board recently. One has a year of experience in the office working in a grant-funded position with the Co-occurring Disorders Court, domestic-violence and elder-abuse cases. Another is a former intern in the office who recently passed the bar, and the third is an attorney who has spent five years in private practice, Francis Griffin Jr.

On Thursday afternoon, Griffin took the oath of office, which was administered by his uncle, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Joseph M. Jabar.

In Kennebec County, the district attorney is in charge of an operational budget of $550,000, which includes salaries and supplies, but not benefits and insurance for the 12 non-attorney staff memvers, who are all county employees. In Somerset County, the district attorney’s office has six non-attorney employees and an operational budget of about $316,000.

The budgets are overseen by a panel of commissioners in the individual counties.

Betty Adams — 621-5631
badams@centralmaine.com