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DA's office manager to lose job - kind of

By Gabe Semenza
Aug. 28, 2010 at 3:28 a.m.


TIMELINEA chronology of events related to Sam Eyre's civil trial.

2006: Sally Blackwell is murdered; law enforcement later named former Sheriff's Office Capt. Michael Buchanek as a person of interest.

2007: Jeffrey Grimsinger, a 25-year-old Victoria man, admits to Blackwell's murder.

January 2008: Buchanek sues Eyre, the lead investigator on the Blackwell case, and others. Buchanek alleges Eyre performed an unlawful search of his home and vehicle after providing inaccurate information to a judge to secure a search warrant.

December 2009: Eyre joins Tyler as the district attorney's office manager.

March: Federal Judge John Rainey declines Eyre's request to dismiss the Buchanek lawsuit and instead rules in favor of a jury trial; Tyler places Eyre on paid administrative leave.

This week: Tyler says he will move Eyre to a position slated to be cut in 2011; opts to keep Eyre on the payroll in another capacity - a job paid for by criminal forfeiture funds.

The district attorney's office manager will likely lose his job Dec. 31 - kind of.

Sam Eyre, who went on leave with full pay and benefits in March, could by the end of the year hold one of 19 positions the county proposes to eliminate in 2011.

Eyre remains on leave while he awaits a February civil trial.

Prompted by a tight budget and then commissioners, county department heads looked for ways to trim 2011 employee numbers and costs.

District Attorney Steve Tyler said he plans to move Eyre from his office manager role to investigator - a position now slated to get the ax next year. Bob Bianchi, an investigator in Tyler's office, would become the new office manager.

Eyre won't collect unemployment, however. Tyler plans to keep the former police officer on staff. He just won't pay Eyre's $42,000 yearly salary with the tax dollars that feed his general fund.

"I'm going to pay him out of the criminal forfeiture money, my discretionary fund, until his case is resolved," Tyler said. "Not only is he a loyal employee, the taxpayer is getting his money worth out of him."

Money in the criminal forfeiture fund comes from the sale of seized items collected after crimes. Auctioned vehicles fuel the bulk of the fund.

Tyler estimated his office would earn this year $21,000 in criminal forfeiture revenues, according to the county's 2010 budget. That money pays for training seminars, travel, office supplies and vehicle repairs.

If Eyre's February trial is delayed, his salary would burn through criminal forfeiture money in about six months - based on the 2010 budget. If that happens in 2011, then what?

"If that account goes dry, there's nowhere to pay him from," Tyler said. "But we've projected a greater amount of seizures next year. We also had more seizures than I estimated this year, and we will carry over a balance."

To help keep in check expenses paid from the discretionary fund, staffers will attend online rather than distant seminars, and drive smaller, less gas-guzzling seized vehicles, Tyler said.

Some might argue that, in tough economic times, public employees who await civil trial should not be afforded the luxury of paid administrative leave. While on leave, Eyre earned more than $28,000 this year so far, said County Treasurer Sean Kennedy.

Deborah Branch is running against Tyler in the November election. The Bee County assistant district attorney said she doesn't know all of the nuances regarding Eyre's situation.

"From what I keep hearing, it won't be Mr. Tyler's concern on Dec. 31," Branch said, suggesting she will win the political race. "If we're having budget shortfalls, sometimes you have to make hard decisions. You're looking at a whole community where in many instances people are going without. That's a hard pill to swallow."

Branch added, "I've known Sam Eyre. I like Sam. It has nothing to do with him. These are rough times, especially when you're talking about the public's money. If he's working a lot, maybe that's a different story."

County tax dollars fund the salaries for everyone who works in Tyler's office - except for Tyler. The district attorney collects his paycheck from the state.

Tyler said that since Eyre went on paid leave, the former police officer continues to earn his keep.

"I've been getting the public's money's worth out of him," Tyler said.

Eyre works full time from home and as an investigator - in roles that won't land him on the witness stand during a prosecution. Given a civil suit looms, Eyre's testimony could hurt the prosecution's cases, Tyler said.

As an example of the fruits of Eyre's labors, Tyler pointed to the indictment of 17 high-profile gang members, many of which were successfully prosecuted.

"Those gang members were an imminent threat to this community," Tyler said. "He's been very productive on other cases, too. That's how important his role has been. Why punish a person where there is no finding of wrongdoing? Why would you fire a productive employee?"

A former sheriff's office investigator accused Eyre of unlawfully searching his home and vehicle after providing inaccurate information to a judge to secure a search warrant.

County commissioners will vote later next month on whether to eliminate the proposed 19 positions.

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