RALEIGH — Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby is leaving office at the end of this month to work in private practice, raising questions about whom Gov. Pat McCrory will appoint to fill the remainder of his elected term.
Willoughby, 63, surprised his staff earlier this year when he announced he would not be seeking another term as district attorney after nearly three decades in the office.
Until recently, Willoughby had said he planned to stay through his term and let the voters decide who becomes the next district attorney.
On Thursday, the longtime prosecutor said he had been given an opportunity he could not turn down by McGuire Woods, a firm with more than 900 lawyers in 19 offices around the globe.
Willoughby, who has a business degree and worked in the field briefly before going into law, will be working in the firm’s government regulatory and criminal investigations division.
“Government regulations can present challenges to businesses, and I think my experience can help them navigate some of those,” Willoughby said Thursday afternoon.
Willoughby delivered a letter of resignation to McCrory on Thursday.
March 31 is his last day as Wake’s top prosecutor, a job that has changed a lot in the 28 years that Willoughby has held it.
McCrory praised Willoughby in a statement for having a career marked by “integrity, high ethical standards and an unbroken trust given to him by the people of Wake County.”
“He was an important voice against white-collar crime and government corruption and the people of North Carolina are indebted to him for his exemplary public service,” McCrory said in the statement.
The North Carolina Constitution gives the governor the authority to make the appointment. Willoughby stated in his retirement letter that he would be happy to give McCrory advice on who should fill the post until a new district attorney is elected and fills the post on Jan. 1.
“Your selection of a district attorney to manage this office during the election cycle could demonstrate your sensitivity for keeping partisan politics out of the Wake County criminal justice system,” Willoughby said in his three-paragraph retirement letter. “Our office and the citizens of Wake County are proud of our history of accomplishing that goal.”
Willoughby, who will join McGuire Woods on May 1 as a partner, said Thursday that he hoped the governor would appoint an acting district attorney who is not one of the six candidates seeking the post.
Two Democrats and four Republicans have filed as candidates.
• John Walter Bryant, a lawyer in private practice running as a Republican;
• Jeff Cruden, an assistant Wake County district attorney and a Republican;
• Lorrin Freeman, the Wake County Clerk of Court, a former prosecutor and a Democrat;
• Jefferson G. Griffin, an assistant Wake County district attorney since 2010 and a Republican;
• Terry A. Swaim, a defense attorney in private practice and a Republican; and
• Boz Zellinger, an assistant Wake County district attorney and a Democrat.
“There are a lot of good lawyers in the county, both among those who are running and those who may not be on the ballot,” said M. Gray Styers Jr., president of the Wake County Bar Association and Tenth Judicial District Bar.
Howard Cummings, the chief assistant Wake County district attorney, said Thursday he hoped whomever is appointed to fill out Willoughby’s term will bring a similar style to the office.
Cummings, in the Wake County district attorney’s office since 1989, said Willloughy was at the helm as prosecutors saw new crimes come into the mix and the county grow exponentially.
When Cummings started, the office had 15 attorneys; there now are 42. There were five people on the staff to assist the prosecutors and now there are more than 30 staff members.
Computers were rare and computer crimes even rarer nearly three decades ago, and now the office turns to the technology routinely for evidence in all kinds of cases.
Crack cocaine was also rare in their early years.
Cummings said Willoughby was adept not only in helping the prosecutor’s office adjust to the changes in crime, but also in adding or shifting resources to deal with new necessities.
“I’d like to think whomever is appointed is someone who could promote stability through the rest of his term so the voters will be able to decide,” Cummings said Thursday.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1