By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
By many accounts, Lonnie Richardson is the kind of public defender every poor kid in trouble deserves. He's earnest. He's energetic. He's good at his job. His bosses seemed to think so during the fourteen months he worked as a public defender, even giving him a generous raise this past October 8. Then he made a big mistake. But it wasn't in the courtroom; it was at an annual dinner party held at the Rusty Pelican on October 23. Richardson, a gregarious sort with the demeanor of an overgrown Boy Scout, unwittingly sat down at the wrong table.
Also at the table was a loosely knit group of restless young attorneys, including Gabriel Martin, who had decided to challenge the status quo in the office. Rumors circulated the previous day that Martin might run against Brummer, but Richardson, who barely knew Martin, hadn't heard them. During the dinner, according to several attorneys present, Brummer himself addressed the issue during a speech. "This dinner became my roast," Martin laughs. "He said that someone was rumored to be running and that it would be an evil that would divide the office." Also that evening, pro-Brummer bumper stickers were handed out and campaign donations were solicited.
Richardson was surprised and a little alarmed when, the next day, he found a bumper sticker waiting for him on his desk. He was anxious, so he went to executive public defender C. David Weed's office and made a $100 donation to Brummer's campaign, "just to be left alone." The following Monday, he alleges, his supervisor, Robert Aaron, called him into his office. Aaron reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an endorsement card and threw it on the desk between them. "'I want you to sign that,'" Richardson claims he said. "You support Bennett Brummer, don't you?'" Richardson, who'd only been in the office a year, was uncomfortable, but he was already having misgivings about making the donation, so he didn't sign the card. Instead he threw his support to Gabriel Martin.
At the December 16 office Christmas party, Richardson says he was approached by Aaron and another senior attorney, Rory Stein. They accosted him for supporting Martin. "Mr. Aaron asked me: 'What did they offer you, $20,000?' I told him that it wasn't about money, it was about the way the office treated people and how it was run. Mr. Aaron then said, 'You're a fucking traitor who would sell me out for a dime.'" The pressure began to build steadily from there, according to his elections-commission complaint. Richardson participated in a Martin Luther King Day parade in which he exhorted crowds through a bullhorn to vote for Martin because it was time for a change. Brummer was nearby at the same parade. Seven days later, on January 26, Richardson was abruptly fired for "significant continuing performance deficiencies."
Lynn Overmann, age 31, another attorney in the office known to be supporting Martin, filed a complaint alleging that her supervisors repeatedly hassled her to sign an endorsement card and that two senior members of Brummer's staff held official meetings in the office to indoctrinate support staff about Brummer's campaign and Martin's shortcomings. Other supervisors printed out lists of Martin supporters and walked around the office with them, a tactic Overmann feels was designed to intimidate.
Alex Rundlet joined the public defender's office six months ago, after helping to establish a state-funded indigent-defense system in Georgia. He claims that in September, David Weed told assistant public defenders at a weekly meeting that there was an election coming up and they needed to help get "Re-elect Bennett Brummer" stickers on cars around the courthouse to discourage anyone else from running. "I was startled," Rundlet recalls. "I didn't think it was appropriate."
Then in November the 33-year-old Rundlet was in the middle of a misdemeanor DUI trial when Robert Aaron, who was also his supervisor, came into the courtroom and asked him to sign an endorsement card for Brummer. Rundlet says he was too busy to think much about it, so he signed and went back to his case. But it made him uneasy, so a couple of weeks later he told Aaron he couldn't support Brummer. He later said the same thing to Brummer himself at the MLK Day parade. Rundlet says he hasn't been harassed as a result of his support for Martin, but after Richardson was fired he decided to file elections and ethics complaints to protect his job. At least two other attorneys have also filed complaints with similar allegations regarding campaign pressure tactics employed by Brummer's top staff.
Brummer, whose taxpayer-funded salary is $136,284, declines to comment on specific allegations, citing possible litigation (Richardson has retained lawyers and may sue), but he does offer a general statement. "This is just another political smear tactic," he says. "Unfortunately this sort of thing is not uncommon a few months before an election. We intend to vigorously fight these accusations."