Struggling public defender’s offices running head-on into Louisiana budget crisis _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING --State Public Defender James 'Jay' T. Dixon, center, Robert Burns, right, Chairman of the Louisiana Public Defender Board, and other board members listen Tuesday, as 15th Judicial District Court Public Defenders Office District Defender G. Paul Marx addresses the board on recent staff cuts made because of losses in state and local funding for legal representation for poor people accused of crimes.

Facing a funding crisis, Plaquemines Parish Public Defender Matthew Robnett pulled a few collections receipts from recently paid court fees at the parish Clerk’s Office earlier this month and made a surprising discovery: Convicted criminal defendants and traffic law violators were still paying a $35 fee for his office, even though the Legislature raised the amount to $45 beginning in June 2012.

And because that money is passed along by the Sheriff’s Office to the Public Defenders Office each month to help fund representation for poor defendants who can’t afford a lawyer, the 22 percent shortfall was cause for concern.

Robnett’s office — like many similar offices around the state — is struggling to keep its doors open amid a precipitous drop in traffic tickets, which are a major source of funding for indigent defense in Louisiana.

An email to the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office confirmed it: Word of the state-mandated fee increase to help keep public defenders offices afloat had never made it down to Belle Chasse.

Robnett estimates the oversight has cost his office about $130,000 so far.

“It would enable us to complete fiscal year ’17,” he said Friday. “We’ll be bankrupt by August without it.”

Robnett wrote Sheriff Lonnie Greco last week to see about recouping the lost revenue, but he and the sheriff don’t exactly see eye to eye on what comes next.

“While the Sheriff’s Office is aware of the dire straits your office is in for revenue, the sheriff is not responsible for the update of costs and fees concerning criminal matters,” responded Terry Sercovich, the attorney for the Sheriff’s Office.

Fees are set by parish government, he wrote; the sheriff’s duty is “to collect, not to establish the amount to be collected.”

The letter closes by saying the 25th Judicial District’s Indigent Defender Board should have informed the Sheriff’s Office of the increase and the failure to collect it “is solely on the chest of whoever was in charge of the IDB back then.”

Robnett, who along with fellow attorney Clarke Beljean was almost furloughed twice this year before the state Public Defender Board found enough money to get their office to the end of the fiscal year in June, disagrees.

“It seems pretty clear to me how (a legal dispute) would play out, and they could save some time and money by agreeing to some kind of payment plan,” he said.

Robnett said he plans to continue working with the Sheriff’s Office to come up with an arrangement, though any resolution is likely to be prolonged by a changing of the guard later this summer, when Greco is succeeded by Jerry Turlich, who defeated him in last year’s election.

Robnett became Plaquemines Parish’s chief public defender in April 2013, so he wasn’t around to notice when the expected increase in revenue didn’t come.

His office, which at bare bones costs $25,000 a month to run, gets between $7,000 and $9,000 per month from the Sheriff’s Office, so the extra $10 per ticket would mean roughly an extra couple grand each month.

Robnett said the revenue line on the check his office receives from the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have the kind of information that would have tipped him off to the oversight.

“We would have caught this sooner had we had that,” he said.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.