The head of the Oregon state agency that runs public defense has alienated a host of high-ranking government officials, bullied staff and made the hard task of reforming a deeply troubled system even harder, according to his detractors.
But Steve Singer, the executive director at the Office of Public Defense Services, also has won the loyalty of many public defenders since taking over the agency in January, attracting praise for his urgency, vision and willingness to butt heads.
Those two dynamics collided forcefully Wednesday as the commission that employs Singer, the Oregon Public Defense Services Commission, met in a candid and tense public hearing to decide his fate.
The commission’s options: To fire Singer, place him on leave while complaints from subordinates play out, reprimand him publicly, or do nothing. It chose the last option by default after motions for the first three options failed to win majority support in the nine-member body.
The upshot is that Singer’s employment in the state of Oregon remains unchanged, even as some of those he’ll have to work with to carry out serious reforms don’t seem certain they want to deal with him at all. The agency he runs, OPDS, contracts with attorneys and nonprofits to provide public defense services around the state, in a complex model that many blame for Oregon’s badly flagging system.
“It’s not Mr. Singer’s vision or ideas that I’m critical of,” Per Ramfjord, the commission’s chair and a lead advocate for firing Singer, said Wednesday. “It is rather his conduct toward other people, which I think undermines the effectiveness of the agency and the ability to move forward.”
After working closely with Singer since January, Ramfjord recently filed a 27-page complaint about the director’s work habits. The document lays out a detailed timeline of repeated clashes between Singer and Ramfjord, influential legislators, legislative staff and Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters.
In one instance in April, Singer became so hostile to Walters in a call that Ramfjord wrote he had to end the meeting.
“In my 38 years of legal practice, I have never seen a lawyer engage in such a sustained, outrageous and unfounded outburst against any other lawyer, much less a judge,” Ramfjord wrote.
Ramfjord told fellow commissioners Wednesday that doing nothing to address Singer’s behavior would be a “disaster” and render the commission a “laughing stock.” He added that Gov. Kate Brown had authorized him to repeat her belief that Singer has “lost the trust of all three branches of state government.” Brown’s office did not respond to a request to verify her stance Wednesday.
Ramfjord had allies. Commissioner Lisa Ludwig, an attorney and former public defender, said Singer had burned too many bridges with state lawmakers, who decide how much to fund the public defense system.
“His communication I would classify as high in volume, low in coherence and casual about accuracy,” Ludwig said. “If the choice is between giving Steve Singer time … or what delivers resources to the providers to help the clients, it’s a no-brainer for me.”
Another commissioner, Paul Solomon, threatened to resign from the commission if Singer was not at least put on leave.
And Walters, the chief justice who appoints the board and is herself a nonvoting member, sounded almost desperate in an entreaty to commissioners to get rid of Singer. She said he had been untrustworthy, needlessly combative and slow to come up with a plan to attack the crisis.
“We’ve been in a chaos of Mr. Singer’s making,” she said.
A public defense
But Singer had his defenders. While commissioners agreed the agency director’s behavior has been unacceptable, some voiced hope that he could improve. They pointed out he’s been on the job for less than a year and his success in helping reform the public defense system in New Orleans beginning in 2005.
“He came here and lots of things were on fire,” said Commissioner Tom Christ, who noted that Singer had negotiated contracts with defenders and helped wrest money from the Legislature. “I am pretty satisfied with his performance so far.”
Christ added that it was unclear whether the agency could find another qualified director if Singer is fired.
Another proponent of Singer, Commissioner Steve Wax, suggested the many woes of the public defense system had not given the agency director time to find his feet.
For his part, Singer asked commissioners to consider how brief his tenure has been, and the many issues that the state’s public defense system is facing.
Always shaky and underfunded, the system has seen worsening conditions since last year. Currently, a lack of attorneys to handle indigent clients has left hundreds of criminal defendants – even some sitting in jail – languishing without an attorney.
A report from the American Bar Association released in January found Oregon’s public defense system has less than one-third of the attorneys the state needs to adequately represent criminal defendants. That translates into a shortage of roughly 1,300 public defenders, according to the report.”
With no end in sight to the crisis, Oregon officials now face a class-action lawsuit demanding the state provide adequate access to counsel.
Singer told commissioners on Wednesday no one told him how serious the situation was when he took the job. He said he came on board late last year to find an agency in chaos, with contract attorneys at war with agency staff.
“When I actually arrived here I found that things were far far worse than I understood or had been led to believe,” Singer said. “It takes time. I’ve been here less than a year.”
Singer acknowledged he may have appeared slow to act in formulating a plan – a criticism raised repeatedly by Walters and others – but said that was because he did not want to make matters worse before understanding Oregon’s system.
Singer also showed some contrition for his behavior, saying he was used to a more combative style in other places he’s worked and would work to change his temperament.
“I need to be more diplomatic, read the room better, be a better listener,” he said. “I’m somebody who’s just comfortable in conflict … Obviously, Oregon has a different approach and I need to adjust and adapt to that.”
Singer added that he’d apologized to some of those he’d clashed with and that he believed he didn’t have an irreparable relationship with any lawmaker or state judge.
With factions seemingly solidified, and one member absent, the commission could not find agreement on how to address Singer’s rocky start.
Four members voted to fire him, one short of the required majority. Three members voted to reprimand Singer, order him to apologize and prevent him from talking with lawmakers. And four members voted to place Singer on leave while staff complaints against him are investigated.
When none of the motions passed, the commission adjourned hastily.
Singer promises change
The question of Singer’s continued employment has been building for weeks but came to a head on Monday when Ramfjord posted notice he was calling a meeting to consider action. That meeting was held in public, rather than a private executive session, at Singer’s request.
News of the meeting set off intense lobbying for and against Singer. Public records show a barrage of official letters sent, largely in Singer’s favor, by public defenders around the state. Many made a forceful case that he should remain atop the public defense office, arguing he is a committed leader.
“For the first time in my time in public defense … we have a director who seems to hear the voice of rural Oregon’s public defense community, understands their needs, and responds to those needs,” wrote Erik Swallow, a defender in Roseburg.
One note from Harney County public defender John Lamborn summed up the difficulty many appear to have with Singer: “I don’t have to like Mr. Singer to say I think he knows what he’s doing.”
A Harvard Law graduate, Singer is a longtime public defender and law professor with a track record of brash action. He has bragged about being jailed repeatedly as he pushed changes to the public defense system in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Singer brought that style to bear immediately in Oregon. Even before formally assuming the lead of his agency, he issued a memo in late December giving notice that public defenders would no longer pay prosecutors for their time in retrieving evidence. The policy shift got pushback from the state’s most powerful lawmakers, and OPDS reversed course in March.
He has also clashed with judges in Marion County, who had assigned attorneys on his agency staff to represent poor defendants, and has angered lawmakers for suggesting they are responsible for the public defense crisis by denying adequate funding.
Singer has at times suggested his forceful style is a feature of his work, rather than a bug. In an address at Harvard in 2013, he described his work reshaping public defense in New Orleans, saying he had become a “fall guy” as part of the process.
“In any kind of reform effort, it’s really important to have a fall guy,” Singer said. “The old system and the people, the entrenched powers, they need to have someone to blame. So you need someone to fill that role.”