Attorney General Intervenes in Public Defense Shake Up; Talk of Layoffs and Financial Catastrophe

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The state Attorney General's office is trying to put the brakes on a legal settlement that would give public defenders access to the same state pension benefits as prosecutors and other court employees. In a letter earlier this month to attorneys for the plaintiff and King County, AG senior counsel Anne Hall said the settlement appears to violate state law and could be "catastrophic" for the pension plan's financial health.

Meanwhile, public disclosure documents recently obtained offer new--and some say, troubling--information about a related plan to make public defenders county employees.

It all started because of a class action suit brought by veteran public defender Kevin Dolan, who believed he and his colleagues were getting the shaft. He wanted access to PERS, the state pension system, something that has been denied local public defenders because they are employees of four independent non-profits. The state Supreme Court sided with Dolan on the pension issue, but sent the case back to a lower court to decide whether public defenders should simply become county employees.

Last month, Dolan and the county reached a tentative settlement that would bring public defenders into government employ. It did not go over well among some public defenders, who are enthusiastic about pension benefits but not so enthusiastic about giving up their independence.

The AG's office, however, isn't even on board with the pension benefits. In her Jan. 7 letter, Hall expresses "grave concerns" and calls the agreement "impossible to implement." Prominent among her worries is the proposed immediate payment of $12 million in lawyers fees from the pool of money that the county pays into PERS. By law, she says, money from a government pension plan can only be paid to its beneficiaries.

"If PERS trust funds are used to 'front' the attorneys' fees in this case, PERS faces the prospect that the Internal Revenue Service will revoke PERS' tax qualified status," she says. That's the catastrophe in the making of which she warns, one she suggests could affect all government employees and retirees.

Some public defenders are concerned about a different calamity. Daron Morris, a deputy director at The Defender Association, recently made a public disclosure request from the county about discussions related to public defenders. He and his colleagues are still going through the extensive documents he received, but already they're seeing red flags.

One of them is contained in a document summarizing an October planning session dealing with bringing public defenders in-house. The language suggests that layoffs are a given, the only question is when. "Assuming settlement will drive the decision of whether we hire all and then layoff (and need to get to a way to do the layoffs--again through bargaining and policy...)," the document reads.

"Obviously, that's very concerning because earlier it was represented to us that there would be no layoffs," Morris says.

According to a November story in The Seattle Times, Dave Chapman, head of the county Office of Public Defense, promised that "every public-defense employee will be guaranteed a job with King County. However, in the event that there's no room for some they might be assigned to a different division of the county, although not necessarily in a legal division."

Reached yesterday, Chapman maintains there is no about-face. "Everyone has a job according to the settlement," he says. But then he adds, " the problem becomes how long are you then employed."

He says the reason for the potential layoffs is that the four public defense agencies, right now, handle municipal as well as county cases. If the municipal work is separated out, less people would be needed. "I don't see any additional downsizing," he says..

Public defenders, suspicious of the county's intentions, are waiting to see the numbers. And the public would be well advised to watch them too, given that public defense is a vital function that suffers in many places from chronic neglect.

*See Also: Kevin Dolan Defends Himself

Kevin Dolan and King County Reach Tentative Settlement Public Defenders May Hate

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