Charlie Cofer was sworn in as public defender for the 4th Judicial Circuit on Jan. 3 and he’s spent the past four months making changes to the staff and how the office does business with its $15 million annual budget.
Cofer defeated his predecessor, Matt Shirk, in the August primary election and then garnered more than 99 percent of the vote in the general election facing only a write-in candidate.
Cofer said Shirk’s management of the office had created controversy since 2013, so a new direction was needed.
In June, about two months before the primary, the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause that Shirk violated several state laws, including improperly hiring employees, inappropriate workplace interactions and consuming or serving alcoholic beverages in a city building.
In a settlement, Shirk accepted public censure and reprimand and a $2,500 civil penalty.
“The standing of the office within the legal community had dropped. Communication between the public defender’s office and the state attorney’s office was non-existent and had erupted into public warfare within our media,” Cofer said.
“I knew I was taking over a troubled office, but I also knew that there were a lot of very good people in the office who were looking for a change in leadership,” he added.
Cofer said employment issues he inherited were low salaries, few pay raises over the years and what he called “serious and unexplained pay differentials” among attorneys and support staff.
In addition, “there were administrative employees who were seldom seen in the office. Nobody knew what they did for the office and its mission,” Cofer said.
About a month before he took office, he put a plan in motion to trim the payroll and change the direction of the office.
“I had a simple list of 14 out of 140 employees that I had determined I was not going to retain because I did not see that they were supporting the mission of the office,” Cofer said.
As it turned out, streamlining the staff was easier than he thought it would be.
“I wasn’t really looking forward to have to terminate 14 people my first day in office. That’s not a pleasant thing to do,” Cofer said. “But the interesting thing is, I never shared the list with anybody but me and my computer. By the end of December, 12 of those people had resigned.”
He immediately hired seven people to replace the 14 who were terminated, resulting in a net gain in the annual payroll of about $300,000. It was money needed to get assistant defender salaries in line and head off another looming financial issue.
Cofer said when he took over, salaries for attorneys in the office were the lowest among all 20 circuits in the state. But despite that, projections indicated the office would spend its entire 2016-17 budget months before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
“The office would run out of money sometime in mid-May or early June,” Cofer said. “You’re given a budget and you have to live within that budget during your fiscal year, so I knew I had my work cut out for me.”
While there’s still work to be done, Cofer said the financial crisis has been averted and “right now we are a much healthier organization. We’re doing projections through next year and if the Legislature doesn’t gore us too badly, we’ll be able to accomplish our mission.”
In terms of improving communication with the circuit’s team of prosecutors, Cofer and his chief assistant have been meeting regularly with State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who also took office in January, and her staff, “just to talk through things,” he said.
“I think you’ll see that problems that occur between the offices will be handled in the office — and that’s the way it should be,” Cofer said.
“We’re not going to try cases or negotiate cases in the media,” he added. “Attorneys are not supposed to use the media to try to sway public opinion about the outcome of a case. I’m a strong believer in that and I believe Ms. Nelson is too.”
Cofer said he knows there are challenges ahead for the public defender’s office, such as death penalty cases that will have to be re-sentenced because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision and sentence review for juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison, but he’s confident the office is on the right track.
“We have a long way to go. Once I get done with all the little short-term things, then I’m confident, long-run, that we are going to have a better office, a stronger office. As a result, our court system is going to operate better for the people and the community,” he said.