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CT commission schedules hearing on embattled chief public defender; new email scandal details emerge

CT commission schedules hearing on embattled chief public defender; new email scandal details emerge

The commission that oversees the state public defender service has scheduled a hearing that could lead to the dismissal of embattled Chief Public defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis, but it remains unclear whether the allegations against her and the commission’s discussion of them will be made public.

Bowden-Lewis has the right to choose whether what amounts to a disciplinary hearing plays out in an open meeting of the Public Defender Services Commission on April 16 or whether it takes place in a closed, executive session. So far, she has not indicated how she wants to proceed, according to officials with knowledge of the matter.

Bowden-Lewis, the first Black woman to hold her position, has been on a paid suspension since early in February after about 20 unsettled months in office.

She has been publicly reprimanded for defying the Public Defender Services Commission, which by law has the final word on division hiring, spending and policy. An investigation by a private law firm accused her of bullying employees, withholding resources to those she believed were disloyal and implying that disagreement with her instructions is the result of racism. Unionized public defenders voted 121-9 in February that they lack confidence in her leadership.

In response, Bowden-Lewis has complained for more than a year that she has been treated differently than previous office holders because of her race and, in letters signed by an employment lawyer, threatened to sue the commission.

Her dispute with the oversight commission escalated in February with new allegations that she instructed a junior member of the division’s information technology team a month earlier to search the computer system for email conversations between division lawyers and commission Chairman Richard N. Palmer — at a time when the commission was considering disciplining her.

Last week, a private company hired by the Division of Public Defender Services issued a report on the email breaches, which is likely to be among the matters considered by the commission as it decides on Bowden-Lewis’s future.

According to two lawyers with first hand knowledge of the matter, the junior staffer used a software program to search the division computer system for exchanges involving Palmer. Ultimately, about a dozen exchanges, some legally privileged, between Palmer and two senior division lawyers were downloaded and printed, the lawyers said.

Palmer would not discuss the email report or upcoming meeting. Bowden-Lewis could not be reached.

Under personnel rules governing the public defender service, Bowden-Lewis is entitled to a copy of whatever information the commission intends to present against her. She also is entitled to challenge the material, present a defense and be represented by an attorney.

Bowden-Lewis is no longer represented by the law firm that had been working on her behalf for more than a year, two people familiar with the matter said.

State personnel experts said the commission could impose a range of discipline up to termination. In the event of an adverse decision, Bowden-Lewis could challenge it in the courts.

There is also the possibility the state could make a financial settlement with Bowden-Lewis, eliminating the need for hearings and appeals. That’s what the state did last year when it paid $200,000 to settle a wrongful termination suit by former commissioner of public health Renee D. Coleman, who Gov. Ned Lamont fired early in the coronavirus pandemic.

Bowden-Lewis also could chose not to appear at the hearing in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. If she does, she is likely to have support from alumnae of Delta Sigma Theta, an historically African American sorority founded by college-educated women dedicated to public service with an emphasis on programs that assist the African American community.

The organization is appealing in social media posts under justice4tblct for people to appear at the hearing and argue against dismissal.

“In 2022 she was sworn in as the first Black Chief Public Defender and now in 2024, the Commission is working to remove her from her office,” one post said. “It’s up to the residents of CT to advocate and make their voices heard!  Bowden-Lewis takes pride in advocating for our communities, let’s return the favor in advocating for her!”

In another, a narrator says, “There is a Connecticut scandal in the public defender’s office. Listen up. I don’t know about you but I cannot stand by and not address the injustice our black leaders are enduring in today’s world.” It goes on to say that Bowden-Lewis “has been retaliated against, publicly humiliated and is under the threat of termination.”

A sorority representative did not respond to a request to discuss the matter.

The commission has refused to disclose its grounds for disciplining Bowden-Lewis. But her conflicts with successive oversight commissions date to her appointment.

CT public defender tells oversight commission division is ‘fractured along racial lines’

Four members of the five member commission that appointed her resigned as a group early in 2023 when she accused it of racism and threatened to sue for rejecting her appointment of a division human resources director.

The commission had decided that Bowden-Lewis candidate, Paula Lohr, a Black woman, was not qualified for the position and chose instead to appoint Erin Ryan, a white woman it considered better qualified.

The commission now in place was appointed to replace those who resigned. It hired the Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin to investigate low morale and other issues at the division and its reported, among other things, that Bowden-Lewis eventually succeeded in making Lohr acting director by forcing Ryan to resign.

“Our factual findings lead us to conclude that Ms. Bowden-Lewis had a preferred individual for the HR Director role and thus made the working environment for Ms. Ryan hostile,” the report said. “ We conclude that Ms. Bowden-Lewis marginalized Ms. Ryan specifically so that she could appoint her choice for the HR Director role—Paula Lohr—on an interim basis, thereby circumventing the established requirements for the job.”

Other division employees have complained of being treated abusively or retaliated against after somehow displeasing Bowden-Lewis.

Turmoil in embattled CT public defender system brings criticism from senior lawyers, ‘This is a division in trouble’

There also have been allegations that Bowden-Lewis ordered staff not to comply with public records requests made under state Freedom of Information law, in particular requests for records that would detail her work schedule.

Multiple division employees said Bowden-Lewis took control of the public records review process, cutting out the legal officer who is responsible for such reviews under division regulations. They said she also ordered the division information technology officer not to undertake data searches needed to comply with records requests without her explicit approval.

In October, the commission issued an unusual public reprimand of Bowden-Lewis for allowing division morale to plummet, disregarding its instructions and leveling baseless allegations of racism against those who disagree with her, including commission members.

“You have engaged in a practice of marginalizing members of the Division with whom you disagree or who you do not like or respect, and you have engaged in a practice of retaliating against persons who you perceive as standing up to you or who otherwise express their disagreement with you,“ the letter said.

“You frequently talk about “collaboration,” “cooperation,” “communication” and transparency” but too often you do not engage in those critically important practices, either in your dealings with the Commission or in your dealings with members of the Division.”

One of the last clashes between Bowden-Lewis and the commission took place in January when she publicly disputed its authority over division hiring policy.

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