[Fox News] Connecticut’s top public defender faces termination over misconduct allegations

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Connecticut’s top public defender fought to keep her job Tuesday as an oversight commission began considering whether to fire her for a range of alleged misconduct, including hurling unfounded accusations of racism against people who disagreed with her and improperly accessing the emails of staff and the commission chairman.

With dozens of supporters in tow including many wearing red, TaShun Bowden-Lewis and her lawyer appeared at a hearing before the state Public Defender Services Commission and denied 16 misconduct allegations lodged against her by the panel after an independent investigation.

After more than four hours, the commission Tuesday evening deferred a decision on possible discipline to allow Bowden-Lewis and her attorney, Thomas Bucci, to decide whether they want to call and question witnesses. The date of the next hearing was not immediately set.

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Bowden-Lewis, 51, the first Black person to serve as the state’s chief public defender, also suggested during sometimes contentious questioning that she was being treated differently than her predecessors.

“I was appointed in June 2022 to be the head and not the tail,” she told the commission. “As chief, I am here to make decisions. Some decisions may not be popular, but they still must be made.”

She added, “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.”

The commission reprimanded Bowden-Lewis in October for alleged “inappropriate and unacceptable” conduct and placed her on paid administrative leave in February, the same day the public defenders’ union voted 121-9 to express no confidence in her leadership. The reprimand included nine directives to Bowden-Lewis, some of which she failed to follow, the panel said.

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In a 26-page notice issued by commission Chairman Richard Palmer last month to Bowden-Lewis, the panel outlined a series of allegations and reasons for her potential firing. The notice cited an independent investigation by a law firm hired by the commission.

The commission alleges Bowden-Lewis created a work environment of fear and retaliation for those who disagreed with her and leveled baseless racial discrimination allegations against employees and Palmer, who is a retired state Supreme Court justice, after the commission made decisions she didn’t agree with.

Palmer, quoting from the independent investigation report, said: “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.”

The report said the allegations of racism created an environment where “employees are fearful to raise any issues regarding (your) leadership, lest they be labeled racists,” according to Palmer.

Bowden-Lewis responded that the report did not find that she discriminated, harassed or created a hostile work environment. Palmer took issue with her interpretation of the report and read portions where he said it did make such findings.

Bowden-Lewis also was accused of refusing to acknowledge the commission’s authority, disregarding its directives and improperly ordering a subordinate to search the emails of employees and Palmer without their knowledge. While the chief public defender can review employees’ emails without them knowing, it can only be done for a valid reason and Bowden-Lewis did not have one, according to Palmer.

Bowden-Lewis said the policy of the public defenders’ office allows her to search any employee’s email and no reason is required, an answer some commission members appeared to disagree with.

Palmer said a public defender office employee claimed Bowden-Lewis specifically ordered her to search Palmer’s emails. But Bowden-Lewis said she did not remember asking for Palmer’s communications.

Palmer said Bowden-Lewis obtained emails between him and the commission’s legal counsel at the beginning of the year, when the commission was looking into alleged misconduct by Bowden-Lewis. He said those emails were potentially confidential and privileged for legal reasons.

Bowden-Lewis also is accused of reprimanding the legal counsel for no valid reason, in apparent retaliation for the counsel’s cooperation with the commission and disloyalty toward her, the notice said. The commission later retracted the reprimand.

In one of the first public signs of the acrimony between Bowden-Lewis and the commission, four of the panel’s five members resigned early last year after Bowden-Lewis made allegations of racism and threated a lawsuit over the commission’s rejection of her choice for human resources director, The Hartford Courant reported.

One of Bowden-Lewis’ supporters in attendance was Marilyn J. Ward Ford, a law professor at Quinnipiac University.

“She is a hard-working, honest, individual,” Ford said. “If she’s made some judgment errors, they would have been in good faith. Not intentionally.”

She added, “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 has more than 400 employees, 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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