Welch adjusts to life as a district attorney
After just a couple of weeks, Ashley Welch is quickly learning what it means to be the District Attorney of the 30th Judicial District.
It means juggling court schedules, managing a large staff and traveling between the seven most western counties, which was to be expected. But it has also meant de-activating her personal Facebook page, changing her cell phone number, always being ready to have her picture taken and getting used to her long-time colleagues now referring to her as boss, Mrs. Welch and even Madame DA.
“Boss is what I used to call (Mike) Bonfoey, and when someone says Mrs. Welch, I look around for my mother-in-law,” Welch, 36, joked while sitting in her new Waynesville office with a spectacular view of downtown Waynesville and the surrounding mountain ranges.
Aside from the unexpected adjustments, Welch isn’t wasting any time getting her offices in order so she can deliver on the promises she made during her campaign for office. She already filled several vacancies in the office, including her previous position as an assistant district attorney.
Assistant DA Jim Moore, Welch’s opponent in the 2014 election, was let go when she took over the office and ADA Rachael Groffsky recently left to take a more lucrative ADA job in Buncombe County.
“The transition has been good — it’s something new every day,’ she said. “I’m realizing that everyone I’ve hired is unbelievably talented and I have faith that they are doing what they need to do.”
She has a total of 25 employees — 10 ADAs, one investigator, one administrative assistant and the rest are victim witness legal assistants.
Welch’s first goal is to clear out the tremendous backlog of cases — particularly a hefty load in Swain County’s Superior Court. She has assigned someone with tons of experience as a trial lawyer to get it caught up. There are several factors that have attributed to the backlog.
“Swain had a rash of homicides with multiple defendants and there’s only so much court time there,” she said. “We also lost a prosecutor that was assigned there full time, so Bonfoey sent me and Jim (Moore) there together shortly after we had both filed for office. So needless to say, it was hard to get anything done.”
Welch said she also sent five of her 10 prosecutors to court in Haywood County to help work down the 300 cases on the docket.
Under Bonfoey, who retired as DA last year, all of the office’s ADAs handled both District and Superior court in Haywood. Welch decided to split the duties up, with newly hired ADA Kaleb Wingate covering District and Jeff Jones covering Superior. Welch said the separation would allow each assistant DA to become more familiar with each court’s players.
“It’s not a rare thing, but it’s not been done here before,” she said.
Two main offices
There’s been some confusion over where Welch’s main office will be located after the Macon County News reported that it would be moving to Macon County for the first time in state history. Haywood County has housed the main office for 30 years, and Welch said that wouldn’t be changing.
“Obviously, Haywood County is the largest county in the district with the most crime,” she said. “I plan on being here at least three days a week.”
On the other hand, Macon County is Welch’s home and she plans on having her own office at the Macon County Courthouse as well. She sees it as having an east and west point of command.
There are district attorney offices in every county in the district. The Macon County office is currently staffed with two ADAs and two other staff members — two more employees than Bonfoey had at the location. Bonfoey had one victim witness legal assistant and one ADA in the Macon office. Welch said she was the second ADA based there even though she said she was hardly ever physically there. The investigator was moved to the Macon office from Haywood County.
Macon County is now getting ready to make renovations to the DA office space to accommodate an office for Welch.
The set up is a little different than it has been in the past, but Welch said she doesn’t understand the concern with which office she is occupying as long as she is doing her job efficiently. Her location on any given day will depend on where things are happening, so it’s going to be fluid.
“Traditionally, the main office is where the DA lives, but I think this is like having two main offices,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean I’ll be any less accessible.”
Welch said priorities and policies often shift depending on the DA in office, and her priorities aren’t that different from her predecessor. Her focus will continue to be prosecuting cases involving felony offenses against children, habitual felons, drug dealers and driving while impaired.
One advantage Welch has is that she served as an assistant DA in the district since 2005 and most of her staff knows where she stands.
“They’ve known me for years so they know what’s important to me and have modified their priorities based on that,” she said.
Welch said she didn’t think she could work any harder than she did as an assistant DA, but she has quickly found that this job will require her to work harder than she ever has in her life.
“I feel confident in doing this job and I feel like I’m where I need to be,” she said.