Racism Allegations Rock Connecticut's Public Defender's Office: Chief In The Hot Seat

By Victor Smiroff | Thursday, 18 April 2024 11:59 PM
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Image Credit : Rep-Am Staff

In a recent development, Connecticut's chief public defender, TaShun Bowden-Lewis, is battling to retain her position amid allegations of misconduct.

The Public Defender Services Commission, which oversees her role, has initiated proceedings to consider her dismissal based on a series of accusations, including making unfounded claims of racism against dissenters and unauthorized access to staff and commission chairman's emails.

Bowden-Lewis, accompanied by her lawyer and a significant number of supporters, many of whom wore red, appeared before the commission to refute the 16 allegations of misconduct brought against her. These charges were the result of an independent investigation commissioned by the panel.

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Following a four-hour hearing, the commission postponed its decision on potential disciplinary action, allowing Bowden-Lewis and her attorney, Thomas Bucci, time to decide whether they wish to summon and cross-examine witnesses. The date for the next hearing is yet to be determined.

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Bowden-Lewis, the first Black individual to hold the position of the state's chief public defender, insinuated during the hearing that she was being treated differently than her predecessors. "I was appointed in June 2022 to be the head and not the tail," she stated. "As chief, I am here to make decisions. Some decisions may not be popular, but they still must be made."

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She further stated, "If I have offended anyone, I do apologize. I have full faith in my abilities, and I know that I have done nothing that has been detrimental to this agency. I am here today to fight for the position that I have earned. I have a family to support. I have the communities within the state that are depending on me to shift this agency toward future improvement. I fully expect to return to work."

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The commission had previously reprimanded Bowden-Lewis in October for alleged "inappropriate and unacceptable" conduct and placed her on paid administrative leave in February. This action coincided with the public defenders' union voting 121-9 to express no confidence in her leadership. The commission alleges that Bowden-Lewis failed to adhere to some of the nine directives included in the reprimand.

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The commission's allegations against Bowden-Lewis, outlined in a 26-page notice issued by commission Chairman Richard Palmer, include creating a work environment characterized by fear and retaliation, making baseless racial discrimination allegations, and refusing to acknowledge the commission's authority. The notice also accuses her of improperly ordering a subordinate to search the emails of employees and Palmer without their knowledge.

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Palmer, citing the independent investigation report, stated, "While perhaps legitimate in certain circumstances, the sheer number of instances in which you have used race-based comments to insinuate or outright state that other employees or members of the commission are racist based on their legitimate disagreements with your management could be classified as bullying."

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Bowden-Lewis countered that the report did not find that she discriminated, harassed, or created a hostile work environment. Palmer disagreed with her interpretation of the report, reading sections where he claimed it did make such findings.

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The commission also alleges that Bowden-Lewis reprimanded the legal counsel without a valid reason, seemingly in retaliation for the counsel's cooperation with the commission and perceived disloyalty towards her.

The commission later retracted the reprimand.

The tension between Bowden-Lewis and the commission became public last year when four of the panel's five members resigned after Bowden-Lewis made allegations of racism and threatened a lawsuit over the commission's rejection of her choice for human resources director.

Among Bowden-Lewis' supporters present at the hearing was Marilyn J. Ward Ford, a law professor at Quinnipiac University. Ford praised Bowden-Lewis as a "hard-working, honest individual," adding, "If she’s made some judgment errors, they would have been in good faith. Not intentionally." Ford further stated, "We’re here because she’s been such an extraordinary public defender and so committed. We know that she deserves a second chance. And she certainly does not need to be removed from this position."

The public defenders’ office, which Bowden-Lewis heads, employs over 400 individuals, including lawyers, investigators, social workers, and other staff who serve lower-income people who cannot afford lawyers in criminal and other cases.

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