Public defender ethics

The governor is pushing hard for a takeover of the judiciary’s public counsel service, but he’s spicing up what is basically a good government message by raising ethical concerns about the current management system.

Jay Gonzalez, the governor’s secretary of Administration and Finance, says he wants to get rid of the current system, which contracts with private attorneys to represent most of the state’s indigent defendants, and replace it with a state agency staffed by about 1,000 state lawyers and workers.

Budget documents indicate the current system is costly. The price of providing indigent legal services this fiscal year is expected to hit $207 million, up about $9 million from last year and more than $100 million since 2003. The documents indicate the costs are rising even as caseloads are declining slightly.

By taking the operation in-house, Gonzalez estimates the state can save $60 million a year, or nearly a third of the current budget amount. He also says the executive branch takeover would bring Massachusetts in line with most other states, where the executive branch either runs the operation or has a strong role in it.

The state’s Committee for Public Counsel Services and its hiring practices are currently overseen by a 15-member board made up of lawyers appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court. In budget documents and in a presentation to lawmakers this week, Gonzalez said four members of the board collected a combined $250,000 last year for representing indigent defendants.

“We don’t think that’s right,” Gonzalez told lawmakers.

Records indicate the four board members are the chairman, Willie J. Davis, who was paid $84,700; the vice chair, Dorothy Meyer Storrow ($71,908), and board members Claudia Bolgen ($50,215) and John Palmer ($42,121).

In a telephone interview, Gonzalez said he wasn’t accusing anyone on the board of doing anything illegal or making decisions contrary to the public interest. He noted state law specifically exempts board members of the committee from the conflict of interest law.

But Gonzalez said the situation creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest and may make board members reluctant to try new management approaches. “The people responsible for governing the agency have a financial interest in how the agency is run and how it handles cases,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s the best governing structure.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Davis, the board’s chairman, couldn’t be reached for comment. But his fellow board member, Arnold Rosenfeld, suggested Gonzalez was trying to manufacture conflict of interest when it doesn’t exist.

Rosenfeld said the chief justice appoints a mix of people to the board and specifically wants some members who work in the system and know how it operates. He said board members don’t decide who gets assigned cases and don’t set the rates they are paid.

As for the governor’s proposed takeover of the committee’s duties, Rosenfeld says the administration has no idea if its savings estimates are realistic and no understanding of what’s involved in training lawyers to handle indigent cases. “I think this proposal is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s bad economically and it’s bad constitutionally. It violates the separation of powers.”