‘Hostile and toxic’: Employees tee off on Bexar DA Gonzales administration in exit interviews

Complaints detailed in more than 100 exit interviews and resignation letters

Employees who recently left the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office described a “hostile and toxic” work environment hampered by harassment and a lack of communication and accountability, according to resignation letters and exit interviews obtained by KSAT Investigates.

KSAT reviewed a total of more than 100 resignation letters and exit questionnaires submitted by DA staffers who left the agency within the past year.

The documents were obtained through a public records request.

KSAT subsequently spoke with more than a dozen of those employees for this story.

Some employees had nothing but good things to say about their experiences working there, but a large contingent laid out concerns ranging from low pay to divisions run by favoritism, records show.

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales did not respond to repeated requests sent via email for this story and attempted to duck questions from KSAT Investigates during a recent public appearance.

“What my statement says is what happened.”

Melissa Saenz, a former prosecutor who resigned her position late last year after being elected judge of County Court 2, wrote in her exit questionnaire that administrative decision-making and a lack of written policies about how to handle cases were her least favorite parts about working for the DA.

“There are issues w/ the family violence chief that go beyond micromanaging. She operates the division based on favoritism, she lies, she communicates to others private emails you send her. She is not easy to work with and not a supervisor you can talk to, which is disappointing,” Saenz wrote.

Reached by phone, Judge Saenz told KSAT she learned a lot while working for the DA’s office but “what my statement says is what happened.”

Bexar County Court 2 Judge Melissa Saenz. (KSAT)

She said she explained her concerns to Gonzales during an in-person exit interview with him as well.

Dawn McCraw, a longtime prosecutor who retired at the end of last year, wrote in her exit interview that the office had a lack of communication or a clear mission.

“Sometimes employees feel they are on the front lines, know the issues, and should be asked directly about the solutions as they are the ones in the know and most directly affected; they want to be heard,” wrote McCraw.

McCraw, whose years of work as lead prosecutor on the Michelle Barrientes Vela public corruption trial landed Gonzales one of the biggest court victories during his first term in office, spoke with KSAT for this story.

Prosecutor Dawn McCraw (left) stands next to Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales after a sentencing hearing for Michelle Barrientes Vela. (KSAT)

McCraw said there was no clear resolution from agency leadership when employees would ask for help and that she wanted leaders who led by example.

She pointed to the tenure of a prior district attorney, Susan Reed, as an example of more decisive leadership.

“You pretty much knew where you stood at all times,” McCraw said via telephone late last month.

‘Workplace PTSD’

Another employee wrote that the “work environment at times was hostile and toxic” and that she was leaving her position with the DA’s office “with feelings of workplace PTSD.”

“The county and DA’s office is laden with ‘Mean Girl Behavior’ also known as Relational Aggression which is Bullying designed to harm social relationships and the status of individuals. This behavior was acceptable by management and management participated in this behavior,” the employee wrote.

She added that there was “a ridiculous amount of favoritism” that took place and “an extremely ridiculous amount of micromanaging that goes on as well.”

In phone interviews, multiple former employees said the administration showed a lack of empathy when family members of staffers had serious illnesses.

“I would have been a lifer if it weren’t for this,” one former prosecutor told KSAT.

Another former prosecutor wrote that she was discriminated against by a co-worker and retaliated against, even after having a meeting with DA office administration.

“I would have liked to been considered for promotion or at least put into a position to better prepare for promotion but I was not, most likely because of my military service,” she wrote.

An advocate who worked for the DA’s office since 2015 wrote that training on leadership should be offered so there could be better management within the agency.

Several employees wrote that they left the DA’s office for similar positions in other counties that offered better compensation, even though those entities were much smaller than Bexar County.

A paralegal wrote that counting costs including insurance, parking and retirement, she was not paid much more than minimum wage.

A paid intern wrote that a significant portion of his monthly salary went to paying to park for work at the downtown office.

He added that female co-workers had to endure high levels of harassment.

“I’ve not seen levels of harassment like this since I was active duty years ago,” he wrote.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, complaints.”

Gonzales’ communications office did not respond to multiple emails from KSAT Investigates seeking an on-camera interview with the DA for this story.

Gonzales was a panelist earlier this month during a public safety town hall on homelessness.

A city media release, which bore the DA’s logo at the top, stated that interviews would be available prior to the beginning of the event.

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales during a recent public safety town hall. (KSAT)

After taking part in an interview with a different San Antonio television station right outside the venue, Gonzales told KSAT “we’ll have to wait till afterwards,” as he walked with several handlers to a back room.

About 20 minutes later, Gonzales emerged from the room and engaged in the back-and-forth — shown in the video below — with KSAT as he walked into the event.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about complaints,” Gonzales said, before joining the other panelists at the front of the room.

You can watch the full exchange between KSAT’s Dillon Collier and DA Joe Gonzales in the video below.

Hours before our investigation was published, Gonzales released a statement claiming pay disparity with other counties was a massive contributing factor to employees leaving his office, particularly prosecutors.

Find more KSAT Investigates reports here

About the Authors

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.

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