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4 Times Public Defenders Landed In Ethical Hot Water

By Andrew Strickler | May 5, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

Public defenders are a key cog in the U.S. criminal justice system, representing more than 80% of people nationally facing a charge that comes with possible jail time. At the same time, they often get a bad rap as harried, overworked, or somehow less competent than other kinds of lawyers.

Rosalie Joy, a vice president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, said there is nothing to suggest public defenders are more often sanctioned than other kinds of attorneys. But the huge caseloads typical for most public defenders, along with over-stretched budgets and other stresses, contribute to missed deadlines and other mistakes.

“Public defenders are subject to the exact same rules of conduct and ethics as any other lawyer, and their main obligation is to protect the best interests of their client,” she said. “But if you can only give someone 10 minutes before they go into court, that doesn’t look very ethical, especially in the eyes of your client.”

And, as with any subset of attorneys, there are some outliers who flout ethical rules and client obligations without an excuse.

Here are four times when public defenders got into ethical hot water:

In the Spotlight

Public defenders usually toil in obscurity. But Lawrence “Kirk” Nurmi of Arizona found himself in the media spotlight as defense counsel for Jodi Arias, who became the focus of tabloid fascination when she was accused of the gruesome murder of her ex-boyfriend.

It didn’t end well for his practice.

Arias, who argued she killed him in self-defense, was ultimately sentenced to life without parole.

Nurmi got the Arias case while at the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office in 2008 and was blocked by the court from withdrawing after he went into private practice.

In the spirit of the intense tabloid fascination with Arias, Nurmi also self-published a book in 2015 titled “Trapped with Ms. Arias” about his often rocky relationship with his client.

A year later, Nurmi was hit with ethics charges for revealing privileged information without Arias’ consent, and writing what disciplinary officials called an entirely negative portrait of her and her case.

He agreed in 2016 to stop practicing rather than continue to defend the charges.

“The book with golden handcuffs on the cover included several confidential and private discussions between Nurmi, Arias, and her family,” the state bar said in announcing his resignation.

Unwelcome Advances

Lonnie Lutz, a career public defender in Coles County, already had one disciplinary strike on his record when he was charged in 2014 with making unwelcome sexual advances on clients.

In once instance, Lutz touched and kissed a woman he represented in a drug possession case, after which she retained private counsel, disciplinary authorities said.

In another instance, Lutz improperly touched a woman who had missed a hearing, telling her that he’d covered for her and that "there are different ways to pay me back," according to a statement of the charges.

Lutz agreed to resign from the bar and admitted as part of a consent agreement that the allegations constituted a criminal battery and an “over-reaching” of the attorney-client relationship.

Lutz’s previous reprimand came in 2008, after he was appointed as counsel for a client and later induced the man to retain him private practice, pocketing some $2,150 in fees.

A 'Voluntarily Excessive Caseload'

Thomas J. Earl built a reputation in Washington state in the 1990s as a hard worker with a lot on his plate.

But in 2004, the longtime public defender was stripped of his license after the state Supreme Court agreed that he’d taken on far more criminal defense cases than he could competently handle in order to run up his paycheck.

Earl, who spent nearly two decades as a public defender in Grant County, was also disbarred for charging clients who were eligible for indigent defense or for whom he was appointed counsel, according to a state bar announcement of the sanction. In other instances, Earl withheld working for a client who had missed payments and charged excessive fees to clients of his private practice.

In yet another matter underlying the disbarment, the court found Earl neglected a case where he was assigned counsel for a defendant charged with child rape.

A disciplinary hearing board found he had a “fundamental misunderstanding” of his role as a lawyer and had a “voluntarily excessive caseload” that was prejudicial to the justice system, the bar said.

Overbilling in Iowa

The Iowa public defender system was hit with a rare kind of scandal in recent years after state audits showed some lawyers were overbilling.

A handful of lawyers also faced criminal charges came after audits found gross discrepancies in public defender payments and a pattern of overcharges for hourly work and mileage reimbursements.

All together, the overbilling resulting in a loss of nearly $500,000 over five years, according to the state report.

In the most serious occurrence, Ney McDaniel, who had worked under contract for the state's Public Defenders Office, was accused of billing for 24 hours of work or more for many days. He’d also claimed to have worked more than 20 hours on many additional days.

McDaniel pled guilty in 2015 to felony theft and got a 10-year sentence. He also agreed to pay back $177,000.

Another public defender, Richard Buffington, was charged with overbilling the state $37,422 over three years and filing for bogus mileage reimbursements worth nearly $7000. He pled guilty to felony fraud and got a suspended 10-year sentence.

McDaniel and Buffington were both disbarred. Court records indicate that some other public defenders caught in the overbilling scandal kept their licenses and remain active.

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