On city salaries, some prosecutors work two jobs to make ends meet

Colin Burke, lawyer and bartender, pours a drink. He says he recently quit his job as an assistant district attorney for financial reasons and will eventually quit bartending now that he is making more money in private practice. (Steven M. Falk/Staff)
Colin Burke, lawyer and bartender, pours a drink. He says he recently quit his job as an assistant district attorney for financial reasons and will eventually quit bartending now that he is making more money in private practice. (Steven M. Falk/Staff)
Posted: August 22, 2012

CARLOS VEGA is a veteran homicide prosecutor, putting scumbags behind bars, sometimes for life.

His latest high-profile case: Antonio Rodriguez, the so-called Kensington Strangler, who was convicted Thursday of three counts of first-degree murder, rape and related offenses in the deaths of three women.

With his high-pressure job and a daughter who lives at home, you'd think Vega wouldn't have time for anything else.

But his city salary hasn't been enough to give his daughter and son the schooling he wanted for them. So, for 14 years, he's been juggling two jobs. His second gig? He's a UPS supervisor.

In fact, Vega is one of several prosecutors in the city who have taken on second jobs to make ends meet. Others have been bartenders or waiters. One assistant district attorney recently moved back into her parents' house.

"Although we're attorneys, we work for the city," Vega said. "We don't make the money that people think lawyers make."

Vega attended Catholic schools growing up in New York, and it was important to him for his son, now 20, and his daughter, 15, to receive Catholic-school educations. But that costs money.

His son lives with his mother - she and Vega are divorced - and Vega pays for his college education.

"If I didn't work at UPS, I really believe I couldn't have" put the kids through Catholic schools, he said. "I couldn't have, because I need to live and eat."

District Attorney Seth Williams said it's "been commonplace for some time" for prosecutors to work second jobs, for which they need office approval.

"People work as bartenders," Williams said. "People work at UPS. People work down the Shore as lifeguards. People work at restaurants, own restaurants. People teach. As long as it's not a conflict" with their city work, he said.

Williams, who took office in January 2010, said that prosecutors used to get a "small incremental cost-of-living adjustment" each year, a practice stopped by his predecessor, Lynne Abraham, in the 2008 financial crisis.

Some have gotten merit raises in recent years, Williams said.

Assistant D.A.s (not including chiefs or assistant chiefs) earn anywhere from a starting salary of $48,975 to about $125,000. More than half make less than $70,000 a year, spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson said.

Tradeoff and sacrifice

Vega, who is in his 50s, started at the District Attorney's Office 30 years ago and has been a homicide prosecutor for 25 years.

He said he hasn't gotten a raise in the past few years.

Right after he gets out of court or leaves his office on weekdays, he rushes to his UPS job and stays until about midnight. He oversees workers sorting, bagging and scanning packages. He also processes the packages and trains workers.

He doesn't wear the brown UPS uniform with the brown shorts, because he doesn't deliver packages. Instead, he dons a burgundy shirt and khaki shorts or pants.

When Vega started at UPS, he was a "regular employee unloading tractor-trailers," he said. He became a supervisor within a year, overseeing workers who loaded tractor-trailers and helping them load.

He chose UPS because it paid well and gave him flexibile hours, he said.

Previously, he worked from midnight to 5 a.m., then would go home, sleep a little, shower, prepare breakfast and lunch for his daughter and take her to school before getting to the D.A.'s Office by 8:30 a.m.

With his current night shift, he still makes his daughter breakfast and drives her to school.

"I don't sleep much," he said. "When I die, I'll get all that sleep then."

Vega said he has about 55 homicide cases on his plate now.

In homicide, he has to be available to witnesses and police 24 hours a day. If necessary, he will go to the police homicide division at night or in the early morning to conduct an interview.

Vega, who has a stern demeanor in court, has successfully prosecuted many high-profile murderers - including Wilfredo Santiago, who faced a retrial in 2008 in the 1985 shooting death of Police Officer Thomas Trench; and Thomas "Napoleon" Strode and Simeon Bozic, who killed Strode's girlfriend, Asia Adams, in her Germantown basement in 2004.

Vega and another prosecutor persuaded a jury to impose the death penalty for Laquaille Bryant, who pleaded guilty to the 2008 killing of a federally protected witness, Chante Wright, 23, and her friend Octavia Green, 23.

Vega had some prior experience in juggling jobs. While attending Fordham University, he worked two jobs to help out his mother, who was divorced. In the mornings, he worked at her newsstand in a Bronx subway concourse; after classes, he worked at a Manhattan shoe store.

"It's a tradeoff," he said of his working two jobs while his daughter is in high school. "It's a tough call. I see this as my mother sacrificed for me and my siblings, and I'm sacrificing for her."

Back with the parents

Joanne, a homicide prosecutor who did not want her last name printed, moved back into her parents' South Philly house in June.

She has an 18-year-old daughter who is starting college at Temple University this month.

Joanne, 49, is divorced, and her ex-husband's child support stopped when their daughter graduated from high school in May.

Her daughter will live at Temple to get the "full experience" of college, Joanne said. With tuition and other expenses, including room and board, and even with some financial aid, her daughter's yearly college expenses will run about $18,000.

Moving back to live with her parents was the best option. "I'm looking at it as a step forward for my daughter," she said. "That's what you do when you're a mom. [My daughter] is my No. 1 priority. My friends think I'm crazy. But until you're in the situation, you can't really judge it."

Joanne, a city prosecutor for the past 23 years - eight in homicide - said she "knew going in I was never going to be rich doing this." With the costs of her daughter's college expenses, car insurance and other items, "it's hard to make it" on a prosecutor's salary, she said.

"You should be able to live on your own," she said. "To not be able to do that, it's frustrating. You try to make the best of it."

She hasn't gotten a raise in four years. "It is the economy," she said. "It is what it is."

Sitting in her parents' kitchen in the house where she grew up, Joanne added that she "loves her job." Her daughter chimed in: "You could never be a defense attorney. It's not in your nature."

Other prosecutors have left the D.A.'s Office to become private defense lawyers to earn more money.

"I don't live the high life," Joanne said. But "we're not destitute. We go to the Shore, but come back the same day."

Waiting tables, tending bar

Andrew Notaristefano, 30, waited tables at Flanigan's Boathouse in Conshohocken while at Temple Law School and continued after he was hired by the D.A.'s Office.

"It was a good weekend gig," he said, and the pub's regulars addressed him as "Counselor."

As a prosecutor, Notaristefano mostly worked at Flanigan's on Saturday nights. He spent many Sundays in the D.A.'s Office preparing for trials.

He started at the D.A.'s Office in 2006 and worked his way up, becoming a homicide prosecutor this April.

The second job at the bar helped pay the bills, including law-school loans, and helped him save money for the future.

But after nearly six years of working the two jobs, he stopped waiting tables around the time he moved to homicide.

"I had worked two jobs long enough," he said. "It's stressful. The people I worked with [at Flanigan's] were great. It was a great atmosphere." But some days, he said, "I was so tired."

Brendan O'Malley, 36, bartended Friday nights for five years at McCrossen's Tavern in Spring Garden until July 2010 - when he was promoted to the homicide unit and his son was born.

"It was a lot more responsibility at home and work, so there wasn't room for much else," he said.

O'Malley, who has been a prosecutor for nine years, was single and had just bought a house when he started at McCrossen's.

"With [law-school] loans and a mortgage, it made things a lot easier to make ends meet," he said.

Colin Burke worked in the D.A.'s Office for five years before leaving in June to work at a law firm representing union clients.

Why did he leave? "One hundred percent absolutely financial reasons," he said. "I loved the work, the challenge. It kind of broke my heart to leave. But at 31, making the salary I was making, I couldn't do it anymore. There was no hope for anything down the line."

With law-school loans, the mortgage on the "cheap home" he bought and needed to rehab in the Port Richmond area, utilities and other expenses, a prosecutor's salary "doesn't go very far," said Burke.

He started bartending at a Northeast Philadelphia bar at the end of law school and continued one night a week while in the D.A.'s Office.

With his new gig at the private law firm, he plans eventually to stop bartending.

"It gets scary when you're 31 and you don't have a savings account," he said. "In the D.A.'s Office, I lived paycheck to paycheck."


Contact Julie Shaw at 215-854-2592 or shawj@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @julieshawphilly.

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