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A D.A. goes M.I.A. Where is the Waushara County District Attorney?

Laura Waite was appointed to the position in April, but hasn’t been seen at the courthouse, or has handled cases, since June
Published: Oct. 28, 2020 at 6:00 PM CDT
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WAUTOMA, Wis. (WBAY) - 124 days and counting.

That’s how long staffers say it’s been since the district attorney of Waushara County has shown up for work.

Governor Tony Evers appointed Laura Waite as the top prosecutor in that county in April, but she hasn’t been seen in the courthouse or handled cases since late June.

Waite is on the ballot, running for re-election, in the November third race.

A viewer asked us to find out where the DA has been, if she’ll be back and whether she’s being paid while she’s MIA, so we started digging for answers.

In the year of COVID-19, it’s not uncommon for people to work remotely, but that’s not the case with all jobs. And the staff at the Waushara County District Attorney’s office tells us their boss, DA Laura Waite, hasn’t shown up for work for four months.

There’s no missing persons report.

Police did a welfare check and determined she is okay.

The DA’s office says it received text message September 16h that Waite was in a pain clinic in Minnesota, but they have heard nothing else and say she’s made no effort to take care of cases while she’s gone.

In the meantime, the justice system is feeling the effect.

On April 21st, the Office of Governor Tony Evers appointed Laura Waite as Waushara County DA after the previous district attorney retired.

In a news release, the governor wrote:

“Laura Waite is exactly the kind of district attorney Waushara County needs. She is capable, compassionate, and level-headed. I have no doubt that she will serve the people of Waushara County well.”

But we found that doesn’t appear to be happening.

Office staff say Waite left the courthouse Friday, June 26th, barely two months into her job, and never returned.

They say she hasn’t been in court, handled cases or even made arrangements to have other attorneys take over.

Two retired DAs from nearby counties have stepped in just to keep the court system moving.

We dug through dozens of online court records, unable to find Laura Waite’s name as the prosecuting attorney in any hearings or cases after June 26th.

What we did find were cases that appear to have been mishandled in court before that date.

Those include a second offense OWI, originally filed by the former district attorney in 2019, but during a motion hearing June 26th, 2020, records show DA Waite cited case law that didn’t actually exist, and the case was dropped. In another case, on that same day, Waite was unable to convince a judge to proceed with charges in a battery case, and the charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could be refiled at a later date. They were refiled in an amended complaint in August, but by an assistant district attorney, and the defendant pleaded no contest to a battery charge earlier this month.

We found another case that was dismissed that involved a man investigators said was caught on camera breaking a window in the Waushara County Jail, causing nearly $3,000 in damages.

Online records show the court couldn’t find probable cause when DA Waite argued the case.

The charge was dropped, but another prosecutor refiled it in July, and the new charges have already moved past that same kind of hearing.

We reached out to staff in the Waushara County District Attorney’s Office for comment, and Jane Kohlwey, a retired district attorney herself, who’s now helping with cases in Laura Waite’s absence, tells us she is “appalled by Waite’s behavior...” but “extremely impressed with support staff,” calling them “unsung heroes” keeping the wheels of justice turning.

We also discovered Waushara County’s only judge called a rare hearing in August, allowed under state statute only if a district attorney is absent, giving him authority to appoint a special administrative prosecutor to handle duties of that office.

An elected district attorney cannot be removed from office except by the governor or by voters.

Waite is on the ballot as an incumbent in next week’s general election, but her campaign Facebook page has shown no new activity since May, when she announced her candidacy, writing, “It’s a job I love and have a passion for.”

So - where is she?

Action 2 News called each phone number we could find listed for Laura Waite, but the numbers led us to messages saying voicemail wasn’t set up or the phone number had been disconnected.

We tried email, using her Waushara County DA address, but the email bounced right back in an auto reply, saying she would be ‘out six weeks,’ but the message listed no specific dates. So we tried her home in neighboring Waupaca County.

We knocked on the door and a man answered, telling us Laura Waite was not home at that time. We left our phone number. We’ve also filed multiple open records requests with the governor’s office and state prosecutor’s office.

We also requested a comment or statement from the governor. We have not received responses to any of our requests so far.

We want to know if Waite is still being paid what we’re told is a typical salary of around $100,000, but we’re told only those state officials that we’re still waiting to hear from can answer that.

Waite is currently listed as being in ‘good standing’ with the Office of Lawyer Regulation, but the OLR tells us if there are any grievances filed, they are not public record until an investigation is complete.

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