News & Opinion » News

Acting public defender resigns after being snubbed


The acting Monroe County public defender submitted her resignation this week after a committee of political appointees tasked with selecting the next head of the agency informed her that she was not in contention for the job.

Jill Paperno has been a fixture in the county Public Defender’s Office since 1987 and has been leading it since January in an interim capacity after her boss, Tim Donaher, declined to seek another term.

Paperno said Tuesday that she delivered her letter of resignation to county officials on Monday when she learned that she was not advancing to a second round of interviews for the job. She said she expects to leave in May.

“This office has been my heart and soul for 35 years,” Paperno said, her voice trembling. “I love the work, I’ve loved working with our clients, I believe in the mission, I love our staff, I love the office.”

By law, the County Legislature is responsible for appointing the public defender, and the process began in January when the body’s president, Sabrina LaMar, announced that she had convened a committee to vet candidates.

LaMar cast the process as a “refreshed approach,” seeking to distance her process from the fractiousness that marred the appointment of Donaher in 2008, when then-Legislature President Wayne Zyra was accused of designating a selection panel that some county leaders charged was tainted by politics.

The committee's rejection of Paperno this time around has prompted similar objections, however.

Four candidates remain in contention, according to committee members. They are:
  • Julie Cianca, who has worked as a county public defender for 25 years. Last year, she ran unsuccessfully for a Monroe County Court seat as a Democrat.
  • Robert Fogg, a criminal defense and civil law attorney from Buffalo.
  • Sara Valencia, a former county prosecutor and city attorney who, according to the state Office of Court Administration, worked as a support magistrate in Monroe County Family Court until last week. An OCA spokesperson declined to reveal the circumstances of her departure from the court system, citing personal privacy reasons. CITY has reached out to Valencia but has not received a response.
  • Andre Vitale, who worked as a public defender here for 17 years but is now the regional trial chief and acting first assistant deputy public defender for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender.
The selection committee is made up of seven members who were appointed by LaMar, Democratic Minority Leader Yversha Roman, and Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew. Roman and Brew each chose one member and LaMar selected the rest.

The committee members include a former judge, attorneys, and clergy, among them the president of the Monroe County Bar Association and the past president of the Rochester Black Bar Association.

Joan Kohout, the former judge who sits on the selection committee, said she voted for Paperno and that a secret ballot was used to determine which candidates were to advance in the interview process. She called that process “distressing.”

Kohout said choosing a public defender should be transparent and expressed concern with what she described as a lack of discussion about candidates among the committee.

“I’m extremely troubled by how this process has gone forward, and I believe that what has happened is going to taint the way the community views any decision that is made,” Kohout said.

Along with a detailed resume, Paperno submitted a packet of references and letters of recommendation from former co-workers, the head of the New York Defenders Association, and her former boss, Donaher.

In his letter, Donaher noted that he and Paperno worked together for 22 years and that he consistently promoted her until she had been elevated to first assistant public defender, his top deputy.

“As 1st assistant, Jill was instrumental in the initiatives undertaken by the office to improve representation to clients, and enhancing the diversity of our staff,” Donaher wrote. “From her experience as a senior leader within the office, Jill has developed the skills necessary to be an extremely effective public defender. I cannot recommend her highly enough.”

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at [email protected].