Although it has yet to officially begin, Orange County's search for a new public defender has stirred allegations of favoritism, political meddling and fears about job security in the public defender's office.
The controversy began after the Board of Supervisors was handed the task of replacing Public Defender Carl C. Holmes, who retired in January and who has lobbied to have his top assistant, Deborah A. Kwast, named successor.
Fearing that a backroom deal was being cut in favor of Kwast, Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) joined a group of local attorneys to create an advisory committee urging a nationwide search for the new public defender. But that committee quickly became a target for criticism because it includes a former political advisor to Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas.
"It is getting a little far afield from where it should be," said supervisors' Chairman Tom Wilson. "It's up to the Board of Supervisors to manage the situation and find out who exactly we want to be public defender. We'll go through the process to do that. And we will accept input from anyone who would like to do it."
Wilson said he welcomes the committee's recommendations but that the search for a public defender will be handled by the county's Office of Human Resources, which is contracting with a private recruiting firm to conduct a nationwide search. After selecting finalists, the supervisors hope to pick a public defender within four months, Wilson said.
"I welcome input from that committee as we do a search," Wilson said. "As far as changing the county [recruitment] process, at this juncture, I don't think that's in the cards."
The public defender's office protects the legal rights of those who can't afford an attorney, including unpopular defendants such as Alejandro Avila, accused of sexually assaulting and killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion of Stanton. The office has a $44-million budget and provides legal representation to about 60,000 defendants annually.
"A strong P.D.'s office is really vital to ensuring that the rights of all accused people are honored," said Jennifer Keller, a longtime Orange County criminal defense attorney.
Spitzer, who served on the Board of Supervisors until November, and Keller helped form the Lawyers' Committee for Public Defender Excellence in January to urge the board to conduct a state- or nationwide search for candidates and to create a blue-ribbon commission to screen applicants.
Spitzer said one factor that led to the committee's formation was his conversations with Holmes and former County Executive Officer Michael Schumacher. After talking to both men, he was concerned that they had already selected Kwast. Kwast is serving as the interim public defender.
"Through conversations with each, I was under the impression this was already a done deal, that there was not going to be any competitive selection process for selecting a new public defender.... I thought it was a clear end-run around the Board of Supervisors," Spitzer said. "Given the fact that this is the second-largest county in the state and the department has a $44-million budget ... no one should be anointed public defender without going through a vigorous process."
Schumacher was not available for comment.
Holmes, who retired in January after 31 years in the office, said he never tried to cut the Board of Supervisors out of the selection process: "I supported Debbie for the job, but I understand the county is going to do a recruitment. That's certainly within their prerogative. I think she displays the [leadership] characteristics I'm talking about."
Still, Holmes said that promoting from within is, "in most cases, absolutely" essential. He said bringing in outsiders to lead offices throughout the state has been "problematic," with new leaders having a hard time taking charge in Sacramento, Riverside and San Diego counties.
One employee in the public defender's office, who asked not to be identified, said Kwast held a meeting with about 20 managers and said that if she did not get the job and an outsider were brought in, the office could be privatized or its budget -- and workforce of 360 employees -- slashed.
Kwast denied making those comments.
"That is absolutely untrue," she said. "I didn't tell people they were going to lose their jobs. That never happened."
In addition to fears about job losses, the selection of a Rackauckas political advisor for Spitzer's committee prompted concerns in the public defender's office that the district attorney was trying to influence the selection.
The name that raised eyebrows was Michael J. Schroeder, who is Rackauckas' former campaign manager and whose wife is a deputy district attorney.
The director of the Orange County alternate defender's office, which represents cases when the public defender has a conflict of interest, said he became concerned as soon as he saw Schroeder's name on the committee letterhead.
He said organizers should have known better than to include a former advisor to the district attorney.
Rackauckas said he intends to play no role in the search for a new public defender.