Connecticut's top public defender fired for misconduct alleged by oversight commission

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — An oversight commission fired Connecticut's top public defender on Tuesday after having accused her of a range of misconduct, including leveling unfounded racism allegations, mistreating employees and improperly accessing the emails of staff and the commission chairman.

The termination of TaShun Bowden-Lewis, the first Black person to serve as the state's chief public defender, came by a unanimous vote of the Public Defender Services Commission in Hartford. The panel held two public meetings in April during which Bowden-Lewis denied 16 misconduct allegations and accused the panel of interfering with her lawful authority to run the office.

“Miss Bowden-Lewis, we recognize that this is a very difficult time for everyone, including you, the division and the commission," the commission chair, Richard Palmer, said after the panel voted. "When this commission was appointed, we started with great hope for the future and never expected or wanted to be here today. It’s the commission’s sincere hope that there are better days ahead for you and for the division. Thank you.”

Bowden-Lewis, hired two years ago, attended the meeting with her lawyer, Thomas Bucci. She declined to comment after the vote.

Bucci, a former mayor of Bridgeport, later told The Associated Press that Bowden-Lewis planned to appeal what he called an “unlawful removal.”

“This was a skewed process, an unfair process, meant to remove a very capable and competent director who was protecting the integrity of the institution,” Bucci said in a phone interview.

Bowden-Lewis previously said the commission was scrutinizing her much more than her predecessors and was interfering with the authority given to her by state law. She also said an independent review by a law firm of her actions found that she did not discriminate, harass or create a hostile work environment, although Palmer had questioned her interpretation of the findings.

Dozens of supporters of Bowden-Lewis attended an April 16 hearing and said she should not be fired.

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 commission said.

The union said in a statement Tuesday that it supported the commission's decision to fire Bowden-Lewis and that the past two years have been marred by “controversy and dysfunction.”

The commission alleged Bowden-Lewis created a work environment of fear and retaliation and leveled baseless racial discrimination allegations against those who disagreed with her, including employees and Palmer, who is a retired state Supreme Court justice.

Bowden-Lewis also was accused of a pattern of mistreating employees, refusing to acknowledge the commission’s authority, disregarding its directives and improperly ordering a subordinate to search the emails of employees and Palmer without their knowledge.

While the chief public defender can review employees’ emails without them knowing, it can only be done for a valid reason, and Bowden-Lewis did not have one, according to Palmer. Bowden-Lewis said in April that the policy of the public defenders’ office allowed her to search any employee’s email and no reason is required, an answer some commission members appeared to disagree with.

Palmer said Bowden-Lewis obtained emails between him and the commission’s legal counsel at the beginning of the year, when the commission was looking into alleged misconduct by Bowden-Lewis. He said those emails were potentially confidential and privileged for legal reasons.

Bowden-Lewis also was accused of reprimanding the legal counsel for no valid reason, in apparent retaliation for the counsel’s cooperation with the commission and disloyalty toward her, a notice of the allegations to Bowden-Lewis said. The commission later retracted her reprimand of the legal counsel.

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.

Bowden-Lewis recently won a local award from a statewide lawyers' group for promoting the inclusion and the advancement of lawyers of color.