Cook ousts three from DA's office

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 3, 2011

By Shelley Smith
Brandy Cook officially takes over today as Rowan County’s district attorney, but she’s not waiting to make changes in the office.
She has fired three people, including the assistant district attorney who ran against her for the job.
In winning election in November, Cook, an assistant district attorney in Cabarrus County for nine years, defeated Karen Biernacki, who has prosecuted cases for 14 years under retiring District Attorney Bill Kenerly.
Biernacki won’t be joining Cook in the Rowan County office, however. Biernacki says Cook told her over the phone she would “not be part of her team.”
“I was not entirely surprised because her philosophy and my philosophy is just so different,” Biernacki said.
Two others have also been let go from the Rowan office: Assistant District Attorney Michael Van Buren and Victim and Witness Coordinator Cindy Lefler. Van Buren has been a prosecutor in Rowan for more than five years, and Lefler has worked in the office more than nine years.
Lefler designed Biernacki’s campaign website, according to state campaign finance reports. Van Buren’s name doesn’t show up in Biernacki’s reports.
Cook wouldn’t talk about specific employees, but said in an e-mail: “As a constitutionally empowered hiring authority, I have the ability to construct my own team as necessary in order to have the most efficient and effective administration to protect our community.”
Biernacki said Cook told Van Buren and Lefler in person they would no longer be employed in the Rowan District Attorney’s Office but did not give them a reason.
Biernacki, speaking on behalf of Van Buren and Lefler, said they are all starting in new jobs.
Biernacki will be an assistant district attorney in the district that includes Davidson and Davie counties.
“I intend to try to work hard prosecuting criminals,” she said. “I’ll just be doing it for Davie and Davidson county citizens.”
Van Buren will be an assistant district attorney in Caldwell and Catawba counties.
Lefler will move across the hall into the Rowan County District Court judges’ office, where she will be a judicial assistant.
“I am grateful, and I know Michael is grateful for the opportunity to continue to prosecute criminals and to stand up for crime victims,” Biernacki said. “As for Cindy Lefler, she will excel at any task set before her and will be a valuable asset to the district court judges’ office.”
As a newly elected district attorney, Cook is not subject to the state’s hiring freeze and recently said she continues to “recruit and retain the best possible employees” for her office, “because I believe the citizens deserve that.”
One of the biggest challenges Cook faces entering the office is the backlog of cases in Rowan County courts. She said some criminal cases have been pending more than six years.
“Serious backlogs hurt victims by denying them closure,” she said in the e-mail. “I intend to have my administration review the oldest cases that have been pending and to expedite the prosecution of those cases.”
Cook said with “one of the most understaffed” offices in the state, she will have to set priorities, including the establishment of “effective and efficient prosecution of cases.”
“My administration will track and target habitual felons to effectively remove these repeat offenders from our community,” she said. “Another priority will be establishing a close, trusting and productive partnership with law enforcement.”
Cook, who lives in Salisbury, said she was excited to make the transition from Cabarrus to Rowan.
“I have a vested interest in our community and the leaders who help protect us from criminals,” she said. “I am looking forward to working with the various agencies involved with the criminal justice system, and I believe the transition from Cabarrus to Rowan will not be as difficult since both court systems are similar in structure.”
Kenerly declined to comment on the changes in the Rowan office.
Contact reporter Shelley Smith at 704-797-4246.