By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Several attorneys working for the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office have filed formal complaints alleging their supervisors pressured them to support the candidacy of long-time incumbent Bennett Brummer over that of a young challenger who until recently worked in the defender's office. One of the attorneys who lodged a complaint believes he was fired because he supports the challenger. Brummer claims the allegations are nothing more than political gamesmanship, but the attorneys who filed them say they are evidence of a larger malaise inside the defender's office.
A lot of hotshot criminal defense attorneys have come out of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Public Defender's Office over the years. Guys like Roy Black and H.T. Smith learned their trade serving the poor before moving on to South Florida's rich and notorious. As with most chronically strained public defender's offices, the idea seems to be to turn young lawyers loose in the court system and then move them up or out in a few years as they mature and their time becomes more expensive. If well-guided, this crucible of training can produce excellent trial lawyers.
But if there is not adequate guidance, and no consistent system of rewards and penalties to ensure quality representation, overwhelmed attorneys can easily flounder. They become frustrated and are faced with one of three unpalatable options: keep slugging it out in the courts anyway; go into private practice; or stop trying so hard. In each case, poor defendants suffer.
This is the state of affairs that has slowly evolved under Bennett Brummer, Miami-Dade County's elected public defender for the past 28 years -- at least according to a small group of Brummer's assistant public defenders. This group has chosen a fourth option: They've decided to support an effort to defeat their boss at the polls this November.
They are backing 33-year-old Gabriel Martin, who resigned as an assistant public defender last November to run against Brummer. "Lawyers really start getting good at about three years, but we're losing them at two," Martin charges. "There's no accountability. There's no correlation between quality and salaries. Laziness is rampant. We realized we had a choice -- we could either get out of being public defenders in Miami or quit and run someone for the office. Demographically, I was the best choice."
Martin is a Republican challenging the longest-serving Democrat in town, but believes that he can win because he's a Cuban American with a good reputation as a lawyer and has the support of some of the best young assistant public defenders in the office, several of whom are African Americans. The half-dozen attorneys who spoke to New Times (most had been in the office three to five years, with salaries in the midforties) all expressed a deep dissatisfaction. "You see people who go to prison for things they shouldn't go to prison for and it seems like nobody above you cares," laments assistant PD Dave Pettus. "There are [lawyers] not getting the job done and nothing happens to them. People got tired of that."
Brummer, who is 62 years old, has faced a challenge only once, in 1996, from former Miami federal prosecutor William Norris. Brummer trounced the Republican handily, though Norris's criticisms were similar to those being leveled today -- that the public defender's office has become too top-heavy and bureaucratic. Junior attorneys are handling the majority of the caseloads while senior attorneys are making the most money.
"There are eight to ten lawyers at the top who don't handle cases. It's the biggest joke," complains Christian Dunham, who resigned last month to go into private practice. "They come in for an hour and they leave. The people at the bottom are working all the hours. They don't retain the good-quality attorneys, the ones who are hungry and want to fight for their clients. Too many of the lawyers who stay are the lazy ones who like that good, easy government job."
Adds candidate Martin: "The training of new lawyers has basically stopped. Especially in felony, it's trial by fire. You have a lawyer maybe eighteen months out of law school trying cases that are essentially life cases."
Brummer counters that the office has an "extensive, detailed training program," of which he is quite proud. As for the other allegations, he says there's no basis to them. "They have a very poor understanding of the limitations this office operates under," he asserts, referring to his critics. "There's a tremendous workload of 90,000 cases a year with 200 attorneys. People in this office are underpaid across the board."
But the critics are not just a group of chronic gripers whining about their boss. Attorneys outside the public defender's office have similar complaints. Jay L. Levine, a criminal defense attorney who worked under Brummer in the late Seventies but is now supporting Martin, says he's noticed a general decline in the quality of representation from public defenders. "I'm not seeing an appropriate level of advocacy in the courts," he maintains. "It looks to me like indifference. There's a core of public defenders who are good zealous advocates, but I was seeing a general apathy."
From the moment Martin decided to challenge Brummer, however, the public defender's office has been anything but apathetic, according to several complaints filed with the Florida Elections Commission, the state ethics commission, and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.
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."