She was fired in a letter, but veteran prosecutor Antoinette Welch tells NewsChannel 5 that she still doesn't know why.
Welch, an assistant district attorney in the Nashville DA's office, had established a national reputation for her work on sex trafficking. But Sunday, not long after she got home from church, she got a hand-delivered letter from DA Glenn Funk, telling her she was fired.
"I was stunned, very saddened by this, mostly stunned that he would not let me know face-to-face," Welch said in an interview with NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
It's the second high-profile firing in the last two months. Back in March, Brian Holmgren -- who was widely viewed as a national expert on child death cases -- was also fired by Funk.
Welch said the very first hint of trouble came the day that Glenn Funk took office and started firing people who had supported his opponent.
"He had just fired six people and called me into his office to talk to me about that and I needed to be on his team and I needed to understand that," she recalled.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You needed to be on Team Funk, is how he put it?"
"Yes," she said.
Welch is a former Metro police officer who established a reputation for prosecuting sex traffickers and rescuing the victims.
Four years ago, Welch said, she took money from her own pockets to create a program she called the Hannah Project.
"These are people that are not respected and misunderstood -- and again that's why they are so easy to victimize because people don't really understand that nobody actually wants to be a prostitute," she explained.
But after Funk took office last fall, Welch -- who had supported his opponent -- said it became clear the new DA had some issues with her.
"On at least two occasions, he told me he did not think there was enough work, enough sex trafficking work, for me to do that full time," she said.
Then, less than two weeks ago, Welch says she was called into the DA's office.
Funk said her sex trafficking cases would be assigned to other people.
She asked about the Hannah Project.
"He said, 'Well, you're just not going to be involved in it anymore,'" Welch remembered. "I said, 'General Funk, the Hannah Project is my project.' His response to me: 'not anymore.'"
"I was devastated. The Hannah Project is so close to my heart, sorry," Welch said, fighting back tears. "My passion is helping victims in sex trafficking -- I love it. This people need a voice."
Still, that same day, Funk's office put out a news release, boasting about the creation of a four-person team to focus on sex trafficking -- including Welch herself.
"He clearly knew that he was going to take all my cases away from me and try to take the Hannah Project and on the exact same day puts out this press release about 'Oh, I'm starting this unit, it's so important to me.'"
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You think it was a diversion?"
"Yes," she said.
Two days later, Welch said, she asked for another meeting with the DA to try to get to the bottom of his concerns.
"He said 'I know how to fire people,' is what he tells me at the beginning of this conversation," she said.
We asked, "I know how to fire people?"
"Yes," she insisted.
Welch said that Funk told her he was reassigning her because of what he called "complaints."
"I said, well, can you please tell me what the complaints are so I can change it and do a do a better job. He said, 'No, you just need to just do a better job.'"
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "But you had no idea what you needed to correct."
"That's absolutely correct," she said. "He did not tell me one reason."
The termination letter this past weekend, she said, came without notice.
Still, Welch said that she's already received other job offers, so her concern isn't for herself.
She said it's about the victims.
"Nashville should be so proud of what we are doing. And I just hate that the District Attorney's Office doesn't want to continue working with the Hannah Project. If there is one thing that would come out of this interview with you, I want the program to continue."
It looks like that won't happen, at least right now.
Funk's office released a statement, saying:
"Within the next 30 days we plan to fully implement a program called Grace Empowered which will provide support to victims and work with local non-profits to expand services. Grace Empowered will include education on legal and health issues and work to ensure that women who have been in prostitution and trafficking have continued support to live safer and healthier lives."
As to why Welch was fired, a spokesperson said: "The decision was made in the best interest of the District Attorney’s Office."
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