John Lindner’s new office is small, with a tile floor and two vertical windows that overlook a gravel parking lot.
It certainly doesn’t compare favorably to the office his courtroom counterpart, District Attorney Warren Montgomery, inhabits a few blocks to the north.
But Lindner, the chief public defender for St. Tammany and Washington parishes, can’t help but be excited. The new office means public defenders in St. Tammany will no longer be crammed into a warren of offices on the second floor of Covington City Hall, where they were for about a year while their former building was being renovated.
Before decamping to City Hall, the public defenders’ office was badly in need of an update: Black mold lived in the walls, and ceiling tiles were missing, Lindner said. The parish decided to renovate the building to accommodate the lawyers who defend people charged with crimes who can’t afford to hire attorneys.
Crews completely gutted the interior, rearranged the walls and installed new ceilings. Just as important, the building was rewired and a new data network was put in, with the parish footing the $500,000 tab.
It’s a huge improvement, Lindner said as he showed a reporter around last week. Boxes still lined the halls and rooms, and technicians perched on ladders in the hallways, running data cables through the building.
The office didn’t yet have phone or Internet service, but Lindner effused about how nice it was to be in better digs.
“My attorneys have their own offices,” he said. “They can talk to their clients confidentially.”
Lindner said he was grateful that Covington leased them temporary offices while they were displaced, but the City Hall quarters were cramped — attorneys were stuffed sometimes four to a room. By contrast, the new office even has a conference room.
The move affords Lindner and his roughly three dozen staff members the opportunity to make something of a new start after a year in a poor physical environment and, perhaps more important, a work environment riven with division and strife, problems compounded by poor management.
Those problems prompted a raft of complaints from current and former employees to the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which oversees all of the state’s public defenders.
An ensuing investigation found an office crippled by the perception of favoritism for some employees and lack of support for others. The situation was exacerbated by Lindner himself, who admitted referring to a black employee as a “Negro.”
During the investigation and its aftermath, Louisiana Public Defender James Dixon prohibited Lindner from making any personnel changes in order to ensure no whistleblowers were punished. Dixon and the state board also promised to send in some help to assist Lindner in becoming a better manager.
Dixon determined that Lindner’s racial reference was a momentary blip; he said he did not find a culture of racism within the office.
The state also hired two consultants to lead seminars at the office: Edwin Burnette, a former public defender in Chicago, and Jeff Scherr, of Kentucky Legal Aid.
Burnett’s May seminars focused on team building, Dixon said. “He tried to get them to have a unified office and all pushing in the same direction,” he said.
Scherr visited in July and made presentations about focusing on the clients in their legal work, Lindner said.
As a result of those seminars, Lindner has created a staff position tasked with assisting clients and their families in finding resources to address any issues the client may have, particularly addiction or mental health problems.
The move is part of a broader trend toward “holistic representation,” where the public defenders try to help with issues that occur outside the courtroom in order to reduce recidivism, Lindner said.
During Dixon’s March investigation, Lindner said he had apologized to the black staff member for the way he referred to him and apologized to his entire staff, as well. He acknowledged that an apology likely didn’t go far enough and promised to find a program to help “start a conversation” about subtle racism.
Lindner said last week that he hadn’t begun any specific program but that “there have been a lot of conversations” among the staff about the topic.
“We preach to jurors about implicit bias, but we all have hidden biases,” he said. “The incident has opened up that conversation here.”
Staff members have been urged to remember to treat the office’s clients with respect, he added.
Lindner pronounced himself satisfied with the new office and the direction his staff is headed.
“This is more professional; it’s friendlier to clients,” he said. “I think the approach that we are taking is to move on.”
Dixon said things seem to have settled down at the office but that he intends to take inventory again in the coming months.
“It doesn’t do a lot of good if you go in right after the training,” he said. “We are going to give it a little while to kind of set.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.