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Monroe County public defenders cry foul in leadership selection

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The week started like any other for most of the lawyers in the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office.

Then they got an email from their boss, acting Public Defender Jill Paperno, informing the office that she was stepping down after being told by a committee tasked with selecting a permanent public defender that she was no longer in contention for the job.

“That kind of was a gut punch to everyone,” said Johnny Castellanos, a lawyer in the office. “We were all shocked, we had no idea about this process, nor that this is where we were at in the process.”

Within hours, Castellanos and other lawyers in the office said, senior attorneys began drafting a letter detailing their disappointment in Paperno being out of the running and urging a more transparent process for selecting their next boss.

The next day, the letter was being circulated around the office on North Fitzhugh Street gathering signatures.

It was addressed to two people: Monroe County Legislature President Sabrina LaMar, who made the bulk of the appointments to the selection committee, and Nathan Van Loon, a family law lawyer steeped in local Democratic politics who chairs the committee.

“When supervisors got wind of this, they expressly told us that we should not do this if we wanted to keep our jobs,” Castellanos said.

Castellanos and three other attorneys from the office, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, offered the same version of events in separate interviews. Castellanos said he was comfortable being identified because he is leaving the county office to take a new public defender role in New York City.

By Wednesday, a version of the letter without signatures was sent anonymously to members of the media and purported to reflect the views of “more than 30 attorneys” at the county Public Defender’s Office. The office has upward of 70 lawyers.

“We believe that the most critical characteristic of the next public defender is their demonstrated commitment to indigent defense,” the letter read. “The best person to lead our office will be someone who has been in the trenches of indigent criminal defense . . .”

“However,” the letter later continued, “the selection process for the next Monroe County public defender was not designed to find this person.”

The county Public Defender’s Office last year handled criminal cases for roughly 15,500 clients, according to the office's annual report. Prior to the pandemic, though, the agency routinely handled upward of 25,000 clients.

See related PDF Letter_from_Monroe_County_Public_Defenders_4.13.22.pdf
The letter went on to suggest that LaMar was orchestrating a closed-door process and complained that she had too much influence over the selection committee because she appointed five of its seven members. The other two were chosen by the County Legislature’s majority and minority leaders.

By law, the public defender is appointed by the Monroe County Legislature. That process began in January when LaMar announced that she had convened a committee to vet candidates after former Public Defender Tim Donaher, who had been in the office since 2008, resigned.

Former Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher. - FILE PHOTO
  • Former Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher.
The committee includes a former judge, lawyers, and a member of the clergy.

Together, they have narrowed down a pool of eight candidates to four: longtime public defenders Julie Cianca and Andre Vitale; Buffalo-based criminal defense attorney Robert Fogg, and lawyer Sara Valencia.

Valencia, in particular, drew scrutiny from the public defenders, who cited concerns over her lack of criminal defense background. Valencia was a former prosecutor and city of Rochester attorney who until recently worked as a support magistrate for Monroe County Family Court.

Her employment in the court ended last week, according to the Office of Court Administration. An agency spokesperson declined to comment on the circumstances of her departure, describing it as a personnel matter.

Attorneys with the Public Defender’s Office are not alone in their apprehension with the selection process.

The former judge on the selection panel, Joan Kohout, and the Legislature’s minority leader, Yversha Roman, have also publicly questioned the integrity of the process.

“Ensuring a fair and transparent selection process is of the utmost importance,” Roman said in a statement. “We have growing concerns about the way in which the committee was formed and the current process. We echo the sentiments of community members who are seeking transparency.”

RELATED: Acting Monroe County public defender resigns after being snubbed

LaMar referred inquiries into the claims in the attorneys’ letter to Van Loon.

In an interview Friday, Van Loon said the selection committee has worked hard to be transparent. He described the committee as taking pains to better advertise the position across the state after initially only receiving four applicants. Four more came in a second wave.

Van Loon added that the committee this week hosted two forums in which select residents and clergy members were invited to question the four remaining candidates. He noted, too, that the candidates would participate in another forum, this one open to the public, on Monday.

That forum, in which members of the public can ask questions of the candidates, is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Central Church of Christ at 101 S. Plymouth Ave.
Van Loon rejected the notion that LaMar had a preferred candidate and that committee members would vote in lockstep.

“The idea that it’s going to come down to everybody having to vote a certain way, that’s the furthest from the case,” Van Loon said.

He said the committee would convene next week after the forum on Monday to vote for a candidate to recommend to LaMar.

“Our recommendation is going to the president and I will hope that she will listen to what we have to say, and I expect that will be the case,” Van Loon said. “She has been nothing but clear with me that she doesn’t have any preconceived notions about who should have it.”

Under the process, the president of the County Legislature recommends a candidate to the full chamber for confirmation. The candidate would first have to be approved by the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, which is scheduled to meet later this month.

“This is people coming together trying to figure out who the best candidate is,” Van Loon said of the selection committee. “The reality is, each one of us is very independent-minded and are not afraid to voice our own opinions in committee and make our feelings known.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected].

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at [email protected].