For the better part of a year, the attention of much of the north shore legal community has been focused on former District Attorney Walter Reed, who has been the subject of much media attention and a federal investigation.
But during that time, morale at the office of his counterpart on the defense side — 22nd Judicial District Public Defender John Lindner — was sliding dangerously low, fueled by poor management, office strife and Lindner himself, who was accused of using a racial slur at one point to describe an employee.
The situation grew so bad that the State Public Defender’s Office stepped in to investigate.
After interviewing employees and Lindner in late February and early March, state Public Defender James Dixon Jr. prohibited Lindner from making personnel changes, citing the state office’s whistleblower policy. Dixon and the state board also said they would hire a consultant to review the office’s operations and help Lindner develop a plan to address the issues uncovered in the probe.
The most egregious single incident that Dixon found was Lindner’s use of a racial slur to refer to an employee. None of the documents from the investigation provide a date for the incident, which occurred months before the probe began, Dixon said. The documents also do not provide the name of the employee or explain exactly what Lindner said or the context in which he said it.
But when interviewed about the incident, Lindner said that, while in a conversation with someone else, he referred to a black employee as a “Negro.” He said he apologized to the employee, who still works in his office. Lindner also apologized to his entire staff.
“It was completely inexcusable,” he said.
With the state’s help, Lindner plans to try to find a program to “help start a discussion” in the Public Defender’s Office about “hidden racism and biases,” calling himself a prime example of how people who consider themselves unprejudiced can still act or speak in a racist manner.
Dixon said the state office will not tolerate racism of any kind, given that many of the clients of public defenders’ offices around the state are minorities. Lindner’s comments showed “insensitivity and stupidity,” Dixon said.
“If there was a racist culture in that office, that would be grounds for dismissal,” he said. “But that’s not what we found here.”
Nevertheless, Dixon’s office plans to monitor the situation to make sure such incidents do not happen again, he said.
But the comment is just one of Lindner’s problems.
Dixon’s office also found that many employees felt a few attorneys in Lindner’s office were treated better than others. The favored group was known by several names: the Dream Team, the Aristocracy, the Corner Office and A Tale of Two Cities.
Attorneys also complained they did not receive proper supervision and were not evaluated on a consistent basis. Some said their case loads exceeded their capacity to provide proper representation.
Dixon’s notes from a March 6 meeting with Lindner state: “This was a severely divisive office with employees that felt ostracized by management and feared their jobs were in constant jeopardy.”
Those issues poisoned the office atmosphere, according to Dixon.
Some employees of the office felt their jobs would be threatened if their complaints came to light and the State Public Defender’s Office set up an anonymous online survey through which comments could be submitted.
Lindner denied he had threatened anyone’s job, though saying he “demands a high work product.” He attributed some of the division to attorneys who already were in the office when he took over in 2012.
But he acknowledged there’s a problem and that some attorneys have unacceptably high caseloads.
“My supervisors and I have been aware of the tension in the office for some time,” he said.
“I did not clean house, but there were a lot of changes made” when he took over, he said.
One of those changes was to create an environment where attorneys worked more in teams and less on their own. Some of the holdovers didn’t like the new system, he said.
He denied that some attorneys got favorable treatment, adding that the attorneys with small case loads were assigned only the most serious cases — sex crimes or cases involving sentences of life without parole.
As for paying for staff members’ training — another area where there were complaints of unequal treatment — Lindner said the only seminars he turned down were those he thought were not useful.
Dixon said the state board decided to keep Lindner in place and get help for him to run the office; it plans to hire a consultant to recommend ways to manage the office better.
Lindner has been advised of the board’s whistleblower policy, which prevents him from making personnel changes without review from the state office, Dixon said.
The board will continue to monitor the office for improvement in all the problem areas, he said. That monitoring could consist of site assessments, court observation, contact with Lindner and his staff, and allowing employees to submit anonymous comments online.
“We are going to keep moving forward,” Dixon said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.