Two seasoned attorneys are seeking to be the first new Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney in 20 years.
Republicans Matthew Becker, and Samantha Cerutti Wacker, both 43, are seeking to replace Robert Parks as prosecutor. There are no Democrats vying for the post, so the winner of the Tuesday, Aug. 7, primary will take over the office in January 2019.
On Dec. 31, 2018, Parks will have completed 20 years as the county’s chief prosecutor.
The Missourian met with both candidates to discuss their platforms, and ask why they are running for the office. They are listed in alphabetical order.
Becker is a former police officer, assistant circuit attorney in St. Louis and is a managing partner in a law firm in Union.
Becker lives in Washington with his wife Belinda and his two children Cecelia and Laura. He is a member of the St. Francis Borgia Parish and his children attend school at St. Francis Borgia Elementary. He serves as the track coach at the school. Becker is a member of Knights of Columbus in Washington, and he is the president of the Franklin County Bar Association.
He graduated from law school at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2003, where he participated in the domestic violence clinic. After working for a short time for a civil litigation firm in St. Louis, Becker joined the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office.
He is running at the request of attorneys, law enforcement officers and others involved in the court system.
“Here a cop, there a deputy, staff from the prosecutor’s office, were suggesting to me that they would like another option,” he said. “After hearing it seven or eight times, I knew it was time to talk with my wife.”
Becker was born and raised in Franklin County on a farm outside of Gerald. He graduated from St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in 1993. Becker went on to graduate from Truman State University in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science degree in justice systems.
After college, Becker served as a police officer in Fort Smith, Ark. He is a graduate of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy.
He stated his law enforcement and criminal jury trial management experience give him “all of the tools for the office.”
Becker was a fully commissioned police officer for three years in a town of about 120,000 residents.
“I have real-world experience I have been out there putting cases together, and collecting evidence,” he said. “I can better explain to a judge and jury what happened and what to do about it.”
In 2014, Becker and William Robinson opened Becker and Robinson. The firm has grown the past three years into Becker, Robinson, Brinkmann & Fulford. He also is frequently appointed by Franklin County judges to serve as the guardian ad litem in child abuse/neglect cases.
Becker will call on his experience as a police officer and criminal attorney to better determine the best sentence recommendations.
“I have the ability to have the hindsight and foresight as to what resolution will have the best chance in curbing recidivism,” he stated. “It is like an engineer who also has been a mechanic.
“That experience absolutely weighs in and will be beneficial to the prosecutors’s office.”
While working in the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office, Becker says he experienced a high volume of criminal trials that he worked or heavily participated in as “first chair.” That includes drug trafficking, violent felonies and burglaries.
“I was instrumental in prosecuting sex offenders and domestic violence felonies,” he commented.
Becker added he has extensive jury trial experience.
“With a jury, you are dealing exclusively with novices (to the courtroom),” he said, adding that jury selection is a key to a successful trial.
“Persecutors are like cops —you don’t hire them you make them,” Becker stated. “Unless you have done it several times you can’t walk in off the streets and conduct criminal prosecution to a jury.
“Being involved in the number of civil cases and civil jury trials sets me apart from my opponent.”
Becker noted that there is a “lack of faith” in the prosecutor’s office. When it comes to plea deals, Becker stated he had the criminal trial background to restore faith in the office.
“I am not selling a plan,” he said. “I have a proven track record conducting numerous felony jury trials and I have demonstrated that throughout my career.
“I have the ability and willingness to take a jury trial to conclusion — that is how to restore faith in the office.”
According to Becker, he manages a firm of trial attorneys who all have extensive experience in jury trials.
Becker said included in his transition plans will be a meeting with law enforcement officers countywide.
“I will work with the prosecutors in the office, meet with law enforcement officers to hit the ground running,” he said. “I want policies in place and be prepared to prosecute cases.”
Becker noted that he will open lines of communications between the office and victims.
“There is no substitute for communication between attorneys and victims,” he said. “Victim involvement and engagement keeps dismissals from happening.”
He added he will bring a “sense of urgency” to the office and be ready to issue charges and go to trial if necessary.
“I will be proactive and work with the office to make sure we are ready with cases on Day 1,” Becker said. “I will also implement significant change in how the office is run.”
Becker noted a prosecutors office under his direction would be better involved in the community to be more effective in combating opiate abuse and addiction.
He will call upon his experience as a guardian ad litem and his private practice.
Becker stated sober living environments should be part of the solution to the opiate problem. The group homes are outside the area for people who are recovering from addiction.
“The key is to remove them from temptation,” he said. “We will be saving taxpayer money — they will get jobs and be paying their own way.
“It is like living with a probation officer.”
Becker explained that under his leadership, the prosecutor’s office will have more “face to face” interaction between staff, police officers and victims.
“I intend to do the job and do it well,” he said. “That is my only plan.”
According to Wacker, who operates Samantha Wacker Law Office in Washington, when assessing a plea deal it must be fair to the victim, to the defendant, to the police officers involved and to the community.
“If I can answer all four of those in the affirmative, then it is a good deal,” she said. “If I can’t then I am prepared to take the case to trial.”
Wacker graduated from Washington High School in 1993 and was a class valedictorian. She attended Saint Louis University, where she received a Bachelor of Science in business administration, followed by her Juris Doctorate and simultaneously her master’s degree in an unrelated field, health administration.
She has since practiced law for 18 years. She was an assistant prosecuting attorney in Franklin County from 2000-2003.
Wacker and her husband, Trent, live in Washington with their three children, Jimmy, Tabatha and Robert, and niece, Susannah.
Turning to private practice, she handled cases in the areas of divorce, custody, court-appointed representation of children as a guardian, adoption, mediation, commercial law and criminal defense. She also represented indigent clients seeking orders of protection through Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and has donated her time for persons living in poverty through the Volunteer Lawyer Program.
Wacker said she is developing a plan to prepare the prosecutor’s office staff for trials. She explained that Joseph Aubuchon, former first assistant prosecuting attorney, will be her top assistant, bringing many years of experience.
Along with Aubuchon, Wacker has recruited several other attorneys, judges, and professionals in related fields to help train and mentor the assistant prosecutors, who will volunteer their time to become better trial attorneys in the office.
“We will have the best possible team,” Wacker noted. “I have the access to these tools, so there is no reason not to utilize it.”
Wacker said she will take a “victim focus” approach to prosecuting and change how the office works with victims.
“It is totally unacceptable the way victims have been treated,” she said. “I will promise to give every case a thorough review, and be fair and honest at all times.
“I will ensure basic human compassion and open up the dialogue with victims,” Wacker added. “These are people who didn’t ask to be part of the system.”
She explained that a plan is in the works to use a shared victim advocate with Gasconade County that would be funded through a federal grant.
“Under my leadership, crime victims will be treated with compassion and respect at all times by every employee of the prosecuting attorney’s office,” she added.
According to Wacker, she and staff will be accessible to law enforcement officers 24/7.
“Crime doesn’t happen from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — it doesn’t take time off,” she stated.
To transition into the office, Wacker says she will work from Election Day to Jan. 1 preparing for the job. Along with Aubuchon, she has the experience to do the work immediately Wacker added.
“We can hit the ground running and begin trying cases,” she said.
Wacker further explained that she intends to keep most of the staff.
“I believe people want to do a good job and I will give them the tools so the best people are serving the county,” Wacker commented. “I expect results and hard work.”
She said there will be a “shift in culture” at the PA’s office and she will lead by example.
Wacker noted the office will have a stronger presence in the community through volunteerism, events and education, to show solidarity with police.
“When law enforcement is in the community we will be in the community,” she added.
The office also will engage with organizations like ALIVE (Alternatives to Living in Violent Environments) and Franklin County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).
“This is our community, not one office,” Wacker said. We want to give back to the community, and do the best possible work to benefit our people.”
Wacker said her decision to run was “long and heartfelt.”
“It is a pivotal time and the office needs change,” she said. “I understand what we have is not acceptable.
“I have heard from colleagues and judges who felt my talent and resources are best used in the prosecuting attorney’s office.”
Wacker stated it is her obligation to do what she can to better the office for county residents.
“I don’t feel that I have the right to not jump in and fix it,” she said.
“I have lived in this community my entire life and I have volunteered in this community for decades,” Wacker stated. “I am the most qualified candidate for this office.”
Wacker also has served as a planning and zoning commissioner for the city of Washington since 2004.
She has appeared in programs for continuing legal education for other lawyers and currently serves as a legal counsel for ALIVE and has been on the organization’s board of directors.
Wacker also has found time to be involved in the Archdiocese of St. Louis child and elder abuse program, Protecting God’s Children.
She is an active member of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Washington.