The executive director of Virginia's year-old Indigent Defense Commission, who oversaw the commonwealth's efforts to improve legal defense for the poor, has resigned amid complaints that reform was not happening quickly enough.
Richard C. Goemann, a former public defender for Fairfax County, was asked to resign by the commission Friday after a two-hour, closed-door meeting, commission members said. He agreed to do so effective Aug. 15.
Goemann previously headed the Virginia Public Defender Commission and helped launch the revamped Indigent Defense Commission last year with a more diverse membership and a mission to improve training for defense lawyers and ease workloads for public defenders. Court-appointed lawyers in Virginia are among the lowest paid in the nation, and the state has been criticized in a series of consultants' reports for providing shoddy representation of the poor.
But some public defenders complained that Goemann's executive offices in Richmond expanded while resources were denied to struggling public defender offices in the field. Joanmarie I. Davoli, the Fairfax public defender, resigned in frustration last month, saying she could not get Goemann or his staff to help with the day-to-day grind of tracking cases or managing appeals.
State Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Va. Beach), who drafted the legislation creating the commission, said the 12-member group of lawyers, elected officials and civilians from across the state was supposed to be a supervisory group, not merely a disconnected policy advisory group.
"I felt that the commission was floundering and not moving forward together in a direction that would benefit indigent defense in Virginia," Stolle said. "There were a number of budget questions, financial questions."
The General Assembly's allocation of $32 million for indigent defense "is a lot of money," Stolle said. "It's not enough money, but I'm not satisfied we've spent that money as wisely as we should have. I'm not suggesting that Richard spent money wrongly or unwisely. It's not a matter of him doing the wrong thing; it's a matter of us doing the right thing."
But Stolle said Goemann's ouster was "not based strictly on budget issues -- it just had to do with what was best for indigent defense." He and other commission members would not be more specific, citing confidentiality rules on personnel matters.
Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond criminal defense lawyer and member of the commission, agreed with Stolle that the commission had the responsibility to decide how to spend its money. "This is not directed at Richard," Benjamin said. "The commission has made bad decisions about the allocation of taxpayer money. More should be going to the field or public defenders, and less should be going to administration and frills in the central office."
Goemann did not return phone calls yesterday. He told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he agreed to resign because "it was clear to me that the commission was unable to move forward under the conditions that existed." He added, "My entire career has been spent providing indigent defense services and improving them."
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), a former commission member who did not attend Friday's hearing, said, "We created the Indigent Defense Commission to get a handle on public defenders and court-appointed lawyers, and we really had not seen that they had done anything."
Albo said he had hoped, after a year, to see a plan for improving criminal defense services. "A lot of people didn't feel like the executive director had moved the ball forward," Albo said.
Stolle said commission members had formed several standing committees to serve as safeguards for the commission's future. The commission has asked retired Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Alan E. Rosenblatt to serve as interim director.
Meanwhile, no public defender has been appointed to replace Davoli in Fairfax. Applicant interviews were conducted last week -- overseen by Goemann. Stolle said no decision had been made on how or when to select a replacement.