Charlie Cofer plans refocused mission at Public Defender's Office

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  • | 12:00 p.m. September 6, 2016
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Charlie Cofer with his wife, Emily, and their daughters, Anne Boccuzzi, left, and Laura Cofer-Taylor on Tuesday after Cofer defeated Public Defender Matt Shirk in the Republican primary. Cofer faces a write-in candidate in November.
Charlie Cofer with his wife, Emily, and their daughters, Anne Boccuzzi, left, and Laura Cofer-Taylor on Tuesday after Cofer defeated Public Defender Matt Shirk in the Republican primary. Cofer faces a write-in candidate in November.
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When Charlie Cofer was Downtown on Thursday, he ran into a group of lawyers from the Public Defender’s Office.

It was a couple of days after Cofer had trounced their boss, Matt Shirk, by a three-to-one margin in Tuesday’s Republican primary.

The lawyers shared what they said the state of affairs had become: Morale was down, nobody knows what’s going on, the office was in turmoil.

All things Cofer had heard before he decided to retire as a Duval County judge and run for the chance to lead the office where he had spent 18 years.

The lawyers were ecstatic change was coming, Cofer said.

“I know you’ve been through very traumatic thing,” he told them. “Let me tell you where I’m heading.”

Cofer told them he will refocus the office’s mission on its clients and helping the lawyers improve. The two go hand-in-hand, he said.

He let them know he didn’t demand their loyalty — a criticism many had said about Shirk. Instead, Cofer said, over time, he would earn that loyalty.

He consistently told voters during the campaign there were a lot of good people in the office.

A point that often got lost after Shirk’s inappropriate behavior with female employees came to light in 2013.

Cofer believes that refocused mission is one the 80-or-so lawyers in the office can accept.

Many of them were there when he served as an assistant public defender under the iconic Lou Frost, who led the office from 1968-2005.

And a couple of his former colleagues from the office will be returning with him.

Cofer said Alan Chipperfield’s specific job hasn’t been decided but he will be involved with the homicide team when he returns.

Chipperfield is currently in Gainesville, serving as chief assistant for the 8th Circuit Public Defender Stacy Scott, with whom Cofer has spoken.

“I am getting Al with her blessing,” Cofer said.

Chipperfield was among the 10 experienced lawyers Shirk fired when he was first elected in 2008.

Lewis Buzzell also will return to the office he started at decades ago.

He left for a while, then returned to work for Shirk before later ultimately resigning. After that, he spent about a year in Afghanistan helping develop the legal system, returning home in 2012.

Cofer expects Buzzell will be involved on the administrative side and help with training.

Cofer will look at the office’s positions and its salary schedule. He said Shirk “had gone a little heavier” on the administrative side.

“He had people in positions that didn’t really advance the representation of the client,” Cofer said.

Although Cofer still needs to defeat a write-in candidate in November to officially have the public defender’s title, he and Shirk talked briefly about transition Tuesday night.

Cofer was “very disappointed” Shirk fired four employees, including a couple Cofer knows, the day after the election. The move also goes against accepted protocol of not making staff changes during the transition period.

Cofer’s campaign started out with overwhelming support from the legal community. Three former presidents of The Florida Bar — Howard Coker, Hank Coxe and John DeVault — served on his finance committee.

They also helped set up meetings at firms throughout Clay, Duval and Nassau — the three counties in the circuit.

Those meetings were productive, talking with lawyers who were upset by Shirk’s inappropriate relationships with young women in the office.

“My general feeling is … a great portion of the legal community took what had happened in the office very personally,” Cofer said.

From the outset, Cofer’s team — led by campaign manager John Daigle — focused on building name recognition in Clay and Nassau counties, feeling the judge’s service in Duval County had served him well here.

He didn’t do much door-to-door work. Instead he chose meetings with groups and public events such as forums and Hob Nobs.

The effort to push his name recognition in Clay and Nassau worked. Cofer won every precinct in the two counties.

In Duval County, he won 191 of the 199 precincts, with the two tying in one. In the precincts Shirk won, he had a total of 18 more votes.

Cofer is looking forward to returning to the public defender’s office and rebuilding the morale within and the trust from the public.

But, in the immediate future, there’s something a little more relaxing at hand. He and his family — his wife, Emily; their daughters and three grandchildren — are renting a little house down by the beach for the holiday weekend.

They all need a rest. The family tended to take it personally when Cofer was attacked during the campaign.

As for Cofer, he’s got a different idea for the trip.

“Maybe I’ll learn how to take advantage of eight hours of sleep,” he said.

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(904) 346-2466



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