Connecticut's top public defender could be fired as panel mulls punishment for alleged misconduct

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — An oversight commission was set to discuss Tuesday whether to fire Connecticut's top public defender for alleged misconduct, but said a decision won't be announced until next month.

Chief Public Defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis faces 16 misconduct allegations. They range from making unfounded racism and discrimination allegations against people who disagree with her, to improperly accessing the emails of legal staff and the commission chairman when they were considering disciplining her.

Bowden-Lewis, the state's first Black chief public defender who has held the post for less than two years, says she has been micromanaged and scrutinized more than her predecessors. She denies all of the misconduct allegations lodged against her by the Public Defender Services Commission.

The commission was scheduled to discuss Bowden-Lewis' fate during a meeting in Hartford in an executive session closed to the public. Although the commission was initially expected to disclose its decision on Tuesday, that won't happen until its next meeting on June 4, officials said.

The commission held a public hearing into potential discipline last month. Dozens of Bowden-Lewis' supporters attended the meeting and said she should not be fired.

Bowden-Lewis did not immediately return an email message seeking comment Tuesday.

She has said the commission has unduly questioned the authority she has under state law and regulations as she sought to improve public defender services. She said she has aimed to create awareness about injustice and “shake the foundation of the criminal justice system” to include more diversity, equity and inclusion.

“This isn’t personal. This is all business,” she said at an April 25 commission meeting. “Therefore it is inconceivable to me that anyone believes that I have made any decision within this agency with impermissible intent, or with a desire to hurt, offend, or marginalize.”

She also noted her 30 years of service in the public defenders' office and its clients.

Later this month, she is scheduled to receive an award from the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity, a group that identifies, recruits and honors attorneys of color in Connecticut and western Massachusetts.

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.

Bowden-Lewis is accused of refusing to acknowledge the commission’s authority and disregarding its directives. She is also accused of reprimanding her office's legal counsel for no valid reason, in apparent retaliation for the counsel’s cooperation with the commission and disloyalty toward her. The reprimand against the counsel was later retracted by the commission.

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.

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.