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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    Conn. public defender says division is ‘fractured’; ‘Nobody wants to say a word because they will be labeled racists.’

    There is new concern that race-based decision making is creating divisions within the state Division of Public Defender Services, where the oversight commission resigned as a group earlier this year after a claim of discrimination and a threatened suit.

    In an unusually blunt public statement, Joseph Lopez, one of the division’s best-known public defenders, told a reconstituted commission that the agency has “fractured along racial lines” under the leadership of TaShun Bowden-Lewis, the state’s first Black woman to be appointed chief public defender.

    Lopez’s comments are the most pointed yet in what has developed as a public airing of an internal disagreement over racial issues in a 450-member professional agency charged with representing indigent defendants and litigants, many of whom are members of minority groups.

    Since her appointment about 10 months ago, the agency has been divided over what many staffers have referred to as Bowden-Lewis’ aggressive diversity and anti-racism programs and whether disagreement with her hiring and management decisions amounts to a departure from diversity and inclusion goals.

    Other senior lawyers within the division have taken the unusual step of criticizing Bowden-Lewis in public over budget and personnel issues; the agency has more than a dozen unfilled positions and is returning an unspent $2.5 million from its salary account to the state in June. But Lopez is the first to speak publicly about what others have described privately as her heavy-handed management style and emphasis on race that they said have created mistrust among colleagues and caused morale to plummet.

    Bowden-Lewis declined to discuss remarks by Lopez or other criticism.

    Lopez raised the race issue during the portion of the commission meeting Wednesday set aside for comments from members of the public. It was the second meeting of the new commission and like the first, its public comment portion — largely ignored for years — was taken over by senior staff with grievances about spending and staffing.

    At the first meeting a month ago, Bowden-Lewis tried to place time limits on the speakers and on Wednesday, she proposed that they be required to sign up in advance with her office. Retired Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer, the newly appointed chairman of the new commission, deferred decisions on both recommendations.

    In an interview Thursday, Palmer said that the commission has heard “extensive public comment” on “serious concerns” during its first two meetings, one of which stretched out for six hours.

    “As I said at yesterday’s meeting, the members of the commission appreciate the willingness of those individuals to come forward and we take what they have said very seriously — including, of course, their comments about a perception of racial tension within the Division of Public Defender Services — and the commission and Chief Public Defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis are working together to address those concerns and to take whatever action may be appropriate in the best interests of the division and its clients,” Palmer said.

    “We intend to work collaboratively with all of those who have an interest in the division and its success to ensure that the division remains the preeminent public defender system in the United States.”

    Lopez said Thursday that there is support for an aggressive Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program in the division “but the way it is being delivered is awful and divisive.”

    “The message pretty much is that prior to this new administration, that we were all racists and we all have to acknowledge that,” he said. “It really is making people feel like there is a ton of racism in this organization and most importantly, and this is my point, anybody who pushes back against this administration is a racist.”

    “Everybody is afraid because if they make a complaint about how DEI is being implemented, or anything about management or anything about TaShun — those are racist comments,” he said. “That is what she has used to really just chill and scare people. Nobody wants to say a word because they will be labeled racists.”

    Two lawyers associated with the division said Thursday that the union representing division employees has considered asking members to vote on whether they retain confidence in Bowden-Lewis, but the union balked, at least in part from fear the vote for and against would be divided along racial lines.

    The new commission chaired by Palmer was hastily reconstituted after most of the former members resigned abruptly and without explanation in late March following what several lawyers said appeared to be a series of disputes between the former commissioners and Bowden-Lewis, who they had recently hired, over hiring, spending and questions about diversity and racial issues.

    The resignations came after Bowden-Lewis retained an employment lawyer who warned the former commissioners by letter that their “action of simultaneously hyper scrutinizing and undermining her decisions is pretext for discrimination.”

    Several division lawyers have said an example of the race-inspired mistrust afflicting the division can be seen in an employment complaint Lopez is pressing against Daryl McGraw, the division’s DEI director.

    Lopez acknowledged the complaint, but would not discuss it. A copy obtained elsewhere by the Courant shows he was summoned to a meeting with McGraw and Paula Lohr, the agency’s acting human resources director, to discuss an apparent disagreement about a misdirected email concerning state public records law.

    McGraw declined to discuss the complaint.

    The discussion turned, according to the complaint, to affinity groups McGraw was establishing within the agency to provide “space”  for people with shared sexual orientation or other common interests to, among other things, “connect,” “share experiences” or “develop strategies to support diversity, equity and inclusion.”

    According to the complaint, the conversation took an antagonistic turn when Lopez, who is Hispanic, asked whether it was appropriate for a state agency to create an affinity group, specifically a Black or African American Affinity Group, that excludes people based on race.

    McGraw, who is Black, allegedly asked, according to the complaint, how long it took Lopez to get his “cushy job” and that “it’s taken us longer.” Later in the conversation, Lopez asked why McGraw “seems to insert a racism component into many discussions.”

    “McGraw responded. ‘That is what white men do, call me a racist,’ ” according to the complaint.

    When Lopez said “I reminded Mr. McGraw that I am not white; I am Puerto Rican and that I identify as Hispanic,” the complaint claims that McGraw told Lopez he was acting “white,”  wanted “to be white,” and  “will never be white” because the white man will “never love” him.

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