Stay Classy, Matt Shirk
September 8, 2016 (Fault Lines) — One of the benefits of being a skeptic is that most surprises tend to be pleasant ones. Criminal defense attorneys tend to be pretty skeptical about public attitudes toward their work, and that goes double for public defenders. That’s why electing public defenders is generally a bad idea, since getting elected depends on keeping the public happy (or at least unaware); but the whole point of being a defense attorney is to deny the public the opportunity to break the defendant on the wheel of the criminal justice system.
The poster boy of a poor choice for elected public defender is Matt Shirk of Jacksonville. He got elected in 2008 by promising, among other things, to:
- acquiesce to funding cuts for his office;
- forbidding his lawyers from accusing cops of lying;
- promising to get as much money as possible out of the people he was supposed to defend, including the ones who were acquitted.
When he was elected in 2008, he promptly fired 10 attorneys (mostly department heads) and three staff, and made Refik Eler his chief assistant and head of his death penalty unit, whose ineffective assistance resulted in new death penalty trials no less than four times in four years.
Not only was Shirk bad at his job, he was a sketchy character as well. The Florida Ethics Commission recommended that he resign or be removed from office based on issues with hiring and firing three different women, one of whom was the girlfriend of the president of the Fraternal Order of Police. He decided to stick with it, though, because who could be a better public defender than the “protégé” of the prosecutor who was endorsed by the local police union?
He really wanted the job, too, and was miraculously aided when a stalking horse candidate named Ronald Falcon filed to run in the election as a write-in. This had the effect of closing the Republican primary to non-Republican voters (no Democrats were running); thus setting up a situation where the future of indigent defense in Florida’s 4th Circuit would be determined entirely by Republican primary voters, not typically a group known for their sympathies towards indigent defendants.
Well, guess what? They came through:
In a landslide primary victory, former judge Charlie Cofer beat out incumbent Matt Shirk for the Repub of 4th Circuit Public Defender. Cofer beat Shirk about 75 percent to 25 percent with some results still coming in.
That’s not just a loss; that’s an old-fashioned ass-kicking. Charlie Cofer is an 18-year veteran of the public defender’s office, who retired from the bench in order to run for public defender. While Cofer gets a salary bump out the deal ($135k to $150k), that’s like going from big fish in the pond to the person in charge of fighting off the piranhas.
So how did Shirk react to the decision of the people? Not well:
The Public Defender’s Office provided copies of termination letters given to Jerry Coxen, Shirk’s chief investigator; Coxen’s administrative assistant, Angela Fouraker; Joe Frasier, the office’s IT director; and Lori Williams, another administrative assistant.
The four employees’ termination letters don’t say why they were fired, but the firings came the morning after Shirk lost in the Republican primary to former county judge Charlie Cofer.
Frasier had been there almost 30 years, Williams almost 20, and Fouraker for 7. Shirk had been there since 2008, so he had plenty of time to evaluate their performance…which he discovered was lacking the morning after Cofer took him to the Woodshed.
“I’m very shell-shocked right now and very upset. This blindsided me,” she said. “When I asked why, it was specifically, ‘Well, you know, we serve at the whim. That’s what was told to me. It was his whim that I lose my job of 19 years that I’ve worked hard at and I’ve shown him nothing but loyalty.’”
Fortunately, most of them landed on their feet:
State Attorney Angela Corey [who also lost her primary] has already hired three of them and is in talks with a fourth.
Incredible as it sounds, Matt Shirk wasn’t trying to wreck the lives of four longtime employees in a fit of pique. It’s worse: he’s gutting his own ranks, leaving his office even more of a smoking ruin, so he can poison the well for a public defender who is actually interested in defending the public.