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.
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.”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.