Niagara County's only two African-American prosecutors have resigned, citing the county's low pay as a reason for opening private law offices.
E. Earl Key's last day on the job was Friday; Phillip Dabney Jr. left two weeks ago. District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III said they were the first black men ever to serve as assistant district attorneys in Niagara County.
Mary Jo Lattimore-Young broke the prosecutorial color line here, but she left in 2001.
Key, who worked as a City of Lockport community prosecutor in addition to County Court duties, said he just can't afford to work for the county anymore.
"When you come out of law school with $103,000 in debt, you need to look elsewhere," he said. "I love public service work. I would stay here forever if it paid anything close to what the private sector pays."
Starting pay for a new assistant district attorney is $37,146. Key said he was earning less than $40,000 after working here almost two years. Dabney worked here for about 16 months.
Key said he's opening an office in the City of Tonawanda to handle criminal defense and personal injury cases. Dabney is hanging out his shingle in Buffalo.
Key said it's "sheer coincidence" that the only minorities on Murphy's staff are leaving almost simultaneously.
"It brought fresh perspective to the office and I think Matt (Murphy) enjoyed that. Not very many blacks apply here. Matt really has to reach out, and he does," Key said.
Attorney Susan M. Howard, who is white, also resigned Friday, taking a job with the Orleans County district attorney's office. She had been here less than a year.
Asked if his prosecutors are underpaid, Murphy said, "In my opinion, yes. I know the public thinks government employees and government attorneys make too much money, but it's hard to keep quality attorneys on what we pay."
Key said he looked into becoming an assistant public defender, "but those jobs are hard to come by," he said.
Niagara County's part-time public defenders are paid about the same as a full-time starting prosecutor, but unlike the district attorneys, public defenders also have private law practices. And the county offers health benefits to the part-timers that equal what the full-time prosecutors receive.
Mayor Michael W. Tucker was surprised to learn of Key's departure. Key had worked with community policing aide Rev. Mark Sanders, another African-American, to battle quality of life problems in Lockport neighborhoods. "I think Earl was a very valuable asset in the time he was here," Tucker said.
Murphy said of the community prosecution program, "It's been very helpful. I think it's built a lot of bridges, solved a lot of problems. When Earl and Pastor Sanders started, this community was on the edge of polarization."
Murphy said he intends to hire another attorney to continue the work in Lockport, and to continue applying for federal and state grants for the program.
Despite many departures over the years, jobs in Murphy's office seldom stay vacant for long.
"We basically teach a very valuable skill, how to be a trial lawyer, that they don't really teach in law school," Murphy said. "It makes them coveted on the outside. It's not uncommon for attorneys to double, or, in one case I know of, even triple their salaries in the private sector."