DA puts office manager on paid leave based on federal judge's comments

  • WHAT'S NEXT?

    Federal Judge John Rainey and lawyers representing all sides in the Buchanek lawsuit agreed to begin the trial in February.

District Attorney Steve Tyler's office manager is on indefinite administrative leave with full pay and benefits.

The manager, Sam Eyre, is named in a lawsuit a federal judge deemed will go to trial in February.

Until then, Eyre helps the district attorney in limited ways, but he is free to stay home, find other work and still earn $42,000 in gross yearly pay.

Why did Tyler hire a man who is named in a lawsuit and then several months later put him on paid leave?

"I'd tell him on the face of it, it's a really silly thing to do," said Peck Young, director for the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies in Austin. "Most district attorneys distant themselves from this sort of thing unless they think they're bulletproof. Why else would he keep him on the payroll?"

THE BACKGROUND

Eyre was a Victoria police sergeant before Tyler hired him. Sheriff Capt. Michael Buchanek sued Eyre and other officials in January 2008 for allegedly violating his Fourth Amendment rights.

The suit originates from a March 2006 Victoria murder, of which Buchanek was a person of interest. Eyre was the lead investigator.

Buchanek claims Eyre unlawfully searched his home and vehicle after providing inaccurate information to a magistrate to secure a search warrant.

After another man pleaded guilty to the murder, Buchanek sued Eyre and the city of Victoria, Victoria County and a former Fort Bend County deputy.

"Sam Eyre was one of many who pinned a guy with a crime he wasn't certain did it," Rex Easley, Buchanek's lawyer, said.

In December 2009, Eyre joined Tyler at the district attorney's office. For about four months, Eyre managed Tyler's office and, using his police background, helped to investigate drug and gang cases.

But in late March, Federal Judge John Rainey declined Eyre's request to dismiss the lawsuit and instead ruled in favor of a jury trial.

"... Buchanek has presented evidence," Rainey wrote, "that would lead a reasonable jury to conclude that Eyre had a malicious motive in misdirecting the magistrate with his omissions and/or commissions."

A week later - on April 5 - Tyler put Eyre on paid administrative leave.

WHY WAS EYRE HIRED?

Tyler's hiring of Eyre, despite the looming lawsuit, stands out because of the district attorney's first appointment to the job three years before.

Shortly before Tyler took office, he appointed Michael Ratcliff to the same position. Tyler then learned, he says, Ratcliff was under investigation for allegations of aggravated sexual assault, among other charges. The accusations against Ratcliff stemmed from his tenure as sheriff a decade earlier.

Tyler kept Ratcliff onboard, the district attorney says, to help investigators keep tabs on the employee. Ratcliff was later indicted on charges of aggravated sexual assault of a teenage boy, but agreed to a plea deal and lesser charges.

The highly publicized scandal involving Ratcliff had the district attorney answering questions for months.

So, why would Tyler risk hiring another employee who could also attract negative attention? This is an election year, after all.

Tyler says he hired Eyre because the police investigator applied with an impressive resume.

"He was hired as an experienced law enforcement officer," Tyler said. "He had skills in excess of what the job I had for him required. He was named in a lawsuit, but so was the police department and the sheriff's office, who I continue to work with. If there's something wrong about hiring Sam Eyre, there's something wrong about me taking cases from the city and the county."

Deborah Branch, Tyler's opponent in the November election, has largely avoided criticizing the incumbent district attorney.

"I guess I would hope I would not be in the position to make back-to-back poor decisions regarding hiring," Branch said. "That being said, it can happen. And with the case pending against Mr. Eyre, I don't want to say it's a poor decision because no one has found he has done anything wrong yet."

WHY PLACE ON PAID LEAVE?

After Rainey ruled Eyre's case would go to trial, Tyler placed his office manager on paid leave.

"It was Judge Rainey's wording," Tyler said. "Whenever a federal district judge has a ruling, you ought to take pause and look at it. I put him on paid leave because I don't know if there's a reason to fire him. He's always been a good employee. I'm not going to willy-nilly get rid of an employee and destroy his chances of future employment."

Joyce Dean, the county's director of administrative services, said it's common and fair in these situations for a department head to place an employee on paid leave.

"What happens if the allegations aren't true?" she said.

The Texas Municipal League, Texas District & County Attorneys Association and others said no general rules exist regarding whether to keep employees who are sued.

William Helfand is Eyre's Houston attorney.

"I don't know there's a general approach to this, but it's rare," Helfand said. "I just don't know too many of my clients whose employment status changed because they were sued."

WHAT'S EYRE'S JOB STATUS?

Another question arises: Why did Tyler keep Eyre on the payroll but not require him to perform full-time, in-office work?

Tyler said Eyre can no longer do investigative work because the job could land him on the witness stand. Doing so would leave Eyre vulnerable to cross-examination about his role in the civil lawsuit, Tyler said.

"It puts my case and his in jeopardy. Any time he takes the stand, the defense can ask questions of credibility," Tyler said. "The work this office does and presents to judges and juries has to be beyond reproach. I don't want a juror back there thinking, 'Well, this guy is involved in a civil suit.'"

The district attorney said he couldn't move Eyre to another position because each job in his office requires specific skills. Eyre can't work as a paralegal or attorney, for example.

"I don't really have a convenient job I could park him in - unless I made him the telephone receptionist, but I'd have to first fire her," he said.

Some days Eyre works a few hours at the office; other days he helps file paperwork at home; still others he performs no work. Tyler has no plans to change this schedule before the February trial, he said.

Some might find surprising the idea Tyler hired a former police officer in the first place. For most of his tenure, Tyler and police leaders have been at odds.

Tensions peaked in May 2008 when Tyler indicted Mayor Will Armstrong, Sgt. Ralph Buentello, Police Chief Bruce Ure and former City Attorney David Smith. The district attorney accused them of interfering with the Ratcliff investigation. The four contended they stepped in because they were concerned about how the investigation was handled.

A district judge has since ruled Tyler cannot prosecute those cases.

Tyler points to the city of Victoria as a prime example of a municipal employer that pays employees despite pending litigation. The city continued to pay Smith after he was indicted and after he stopped working full time as city attorney in April 2008.

Smith received between $2,300 and $2,900 a month for eight months as a consultant, city records show. The city contends Smith was contracted for a special project.

Greg Cagle, a municipal lawyer who represents Ure, doesn't object to Tyler keeping Eyre on the payroll. He does, however, question why Tyler put his employee on leave.

"I would think if he knew the facts of the allegation, you either don't hire the guy or you stand by him," Cagle said.