JUNEAU — The Alaska public defender agency is referring more cases to the Office of Public Advocacy because of conflicts of interest with other cases or clients, according to a state oversight report released Monday.
The number of conflicts jeopardizes the primary defense role the agency plays because the more cases it cannot do, the more the Office of Public Advocacy and contract attorneys will do, the report said.
The public defender agency inconsistently reports the number of cases it has, has had higher caseloads in offices where it has struggled to recruit and keep attorneys and would be more efficient with additional support staff, according to the report, which also suggested the agency could more effectively use its resources.
Public Defender Samantha Cherot told a news conference in Anchorage, also attended by Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka, that her agency cooperated in the review.
Cherot, who was appointed earlier this year, said the agency will review the findings and recommendations and consider the part "they may play in long-term solutions and agency goals."
The oversight unit, public defender agency and Office of Public Advocacy fall under the department.
Tshibaka said the report was not written by political appointees and was written under standards used by inspector general offices.
The report said the conflict rate could be due to several factors, including that the public defender agency is fully integrated, with no practice areas or geographic offices "siloed off" from one another.
The report recommends the public defender agency and Office of Public Advocacy develop a uniform definition for counting cases. It also recommends that the public defender agency create a new unit walled off from other agency attorneys in hopes of reducing conflicts and strengthen its review of potential conflicts. It recommends a "small fee" be charged parents pursuing an appeal in child-in-need-of-aid cases.
Rep. Matt Claman, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said it will take additional spending to provide competent, effective representation and retain public defenders and prosecutors with experience.
The Anchorage Democrat, who said he was still studying the report, said he saw it as saying the agency should be more efficient but also that it should hire more people.
Managing conflicts of interest is complex, Claman said. It's an open question whether the suggestions made for addressing conflicts were achievable, he said.
Claman also said Monday was the first time he had heard of the Oversight and Review Unit, which Tshibaka said she established earlier this year. Tshibaka said the unit would do reviews, audits and investigations aimed at finding and deterring waste, fraud and abuse and improving state programs.
Claman said it was odd to see a reference in the report to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which he described as “extremely partisan.” The report cites a resolution it says the group issues in support of public defense.