The selection of a former prosecutor to head the D.C. Public Defender Service, the city agency that represents indigent defendants charged with serious crimes, was met with cries of outrage yesterday from the defender staff itself, a member of its board of trustees and at least one judge.
The Rev. Msgr. Joaquin A. Bazan, a board of trustees member, in a strongly worded letter delivered yesterday to Chairman Vincent H. Cohen, attacked the board's choice of Justice Department attorney Cheryl Long and the "secret ballot" used in her selection.
"The poor deserve the best defense, and here they're giving them a prosecutor," Bazan said in an interview. "We are a public board, accountable to the public and we should not be doing things by secret ballot."
Members of the defender service's staff, in a letter to Cohen, said they were "offended" by the "unfair and secretive process for selection . . . a process which worked to deny the position to the most outstanding candidate." The letter did not contain the signatures of any staff members, but one lawyer said it was drafted after a meeting attended by 70 staff members yesterday.
A trustee yesterday defended the use of the secret ballot, saying it had been used in the past for other selections and that no one, including Bazan, had objected to it at the time. Bazan, however, said previous selections had not been made by secret ballot.
Some of the staff and several trustees favored the service's deputy director, Charles Ogletree, to head the 61 lawyers in the office who defend more than 1,000 indigent criminal defendants annually.
A trustee, who asked to remain anonymous, responded that the board "will stand behind its choice despite the criticism."
The board voted 6 to 4 for Long with one abstention, according to two trustees.
The public airing of charges was an unusual departure for a board member and the staff, who are normally reluctant to comment publicly about internal matters. But the battle is an outgrowth of growing controversy on the board over the resignation of former service director Francis D. Carter.
Yesterday, several private defense lawyers, prosecutors and a D.C. Superior Court judge -- all of whom said Long was a bright and able attorney -- nevertheless questioned the choice of a former prosecutor, who they said had no defense experience, to head the city's criminal defense agency.
Long, who now handles environmental cases for Justice, could not be reached for comment. Her resume listed no criminal defense work.
"Without at all being critical of the person selected, it was perfectly obvious to everyone involved in the administration of criminal justice in this city, except apparently the board of trustees, that Mr. Ogletree was the best qualified candidate . . . to maintain [the service's] enviable tradition of giving the best legal representation possible to the poor . . . . " one judge commented.
A high-ranking official in the U.S. attorney's office, who gave Long high marks for her four years as a prosecutor there, said, "It's still surprising they took someone with no defense experience, especially with Ogletree there. He is an exceptionally able guy.