Slurred speech

State prosecutor fired for alleged racist remarks, but colleagues say charges are out of character

On May 27, the Office of the State Attorney, Ninth Judicial Circuit reached a milestone, albeit a dubious one. For the first time ever, the office, which prosecutes criminal cases in Orange and Osceola counties, fired an assistant state attorney for violating section 902 (b) 13 of its policy, which bars employees from making "racial or ethnic slurs" at work.

Kerstin Morgan, 26, was fired two days after managers of the felony division in which she worked were informed by employees that Morgan had repeatedly made racist comments about African-Americans. "At least five employees have heard Kerstin Morgan use terms such as ‘nigger,' ‘nigeritis' and ‘niglet' in the workplace in relation to members of the public," Morgan's termination notice states. "In one offensive incident … Morgan indicated to another SAO employee that she was ‘leaving a division with one lazy nigger to go to a division with another lazy nigger.'"

Given the overrepresentation of African-Americans in the state's prisons and the growing power of prosecutors, the firing could be considered fortunate in that it occurred early in Morgan's tenure. She was hired by the State Attorney's Office in August 2010 as a certified legal intern and had only held the title of assistant state attorney since April of this year. According to a performance evaluation released on the day of her termination, she had only prosecuted "one trial on her own."

But there are doubts about the validity of the charges against her. There are no dates or documentation tied to the purported incidents, even though the investigation, according to spokeswoman Danielle Tavernier, is based on anecdotes from other assistant state attorneys. In addition, the office could not say which case Morgan had prosecuted solo, nor could it supply documentation surrounding the verdict of her June 1 appeal hearing, in which her termination was upheld. Most notably, three of Morgan's former bosses regard the reported behavior as out of character for a woman considered bright and professional, who got along well with black coworkers and who even spent the summer of 2008 in Cape Town, South Africa, at a study-abroad program designed to analyze race and race relations in the legal system.

"I think it was more personality related than any particular incident," says Heidi Connor, a historical archivist based in Sarasota who employed Morgan as an assistant between 2005 and 2007. Connor says that she has been in contact with Morgan via email since the decision and guesses that "tarnished professional relationships" were at the root of what she considers unfounded allegations. "I'm a middle-aged woman, but I know: Women can be catty," Connor says.

Four of the five assistant state attorneys listed in the notice as witnesses – Melissa Zeligman, Jessica Travis, Kathryn Cacciatore and Heather Page – are white women. (Their ages were not released. The fifth witness, Kendell Ali, is a male of undefined ethnicity, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement background check.) Neither Morgan nor her five former coworkers replied to requests for comment via email.

Alicia Tabag, who supervised Morgan in 2008 as a law clerk at the University of Florida Levin College of Law (where Morgan earned her law degree last year), and Nelson Diaz, who was her boss in 2007 at the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff, both say that Morgan interacted amicably with her African-American coworkers. "She was a stellar employee, very professional," Diaz says. Tabag echoes that sentiment, adding: "I've never had anybody complain about her."

But a performance evaluation by the State Attorney's Office on the date of her firing paints a different picture. "[She] shows her displeasure with rulings in court in an unprofessional manner by rolling her eyes or muttering under her breath loud enough for others to hear," the evaluation states. "She will disparage victims to others, and often has negative things to say about her coworkers."

The negative performance evaluation, her subsequent firing and the wildly different descriptions of her personality beg several questions: How could Morgan, who was intelligent enough to make it through law school and work without incident in other professional environments, feel it was OK to use racial slurs at work? And given her reported acerbic nature and unprofessional behavior, why was she hired, let alone promoted, less than six weeks before she was let go? The Orlando Weekly asked the State Attorney's Office for an interview with the deputy chief and the chief of the felony division, who signed off on Morgan's performance evaluation, but the request was denied. "The investigation/statement speaks for itself," Tavernier wrote.

Though the Weekly was unable to reach Morgan for comment, her correspondence with her former employer indicates that she may contest the charges formally. In a June 5 email to her former employer, Morgan asks for documentation of the office's termination procedure, its probationary period, as well as the "at-will employment relationship."