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State’s embattled public defense office signed contracts worth $400,000 to hire consultants, including former state Rep. Jennifer Williamson

The Office of Public Defense Services signed a six-month contract on Feb. 24 with former House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, pictured here, for six months retroactive to Feb. 1. Williamson is senior vice president of the Strategies 360 political consulting firm in Portland.  (Stephanie Yao Long/Oregonian)
The Office of Public Defense Services signed a six-month contract on Feb. 24 with former House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, pictured here, for six months retroactive to Feb. 1. Williamson is senior vice president of the Strategies 360 political consulting firm in Portland. (Stephanie Yao Long/Oregonian)
By Noelle Crombie Oregonian

The agency that administers Oregon’s public defense system, the brunt of scathing criticism from lawyers and investigators who say they haven’t been paid enough or on time, has hired a former state lawmaker as a communications consultant and agreed to pay another company to help with restructuring efforts in contracts totaling nearly $400,000.

The Office of Public Defense Services signed a six-month contract with former House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, Feb. 24 for six months retroactive to Feb. 1. Williamson is senior vice president of the Strategies 360 political consulting firm in Portland.

The state office agreed to pay the firm $120,000 for advice related to communications, media relations and lobbying, according to a copy of the contract.

The public defense agency also agreed to pay the Portland-based Coraggio Group, up to $270,390 to help with modernizing its operations.

As part of that contract, the business consultants agreed to produce a report that offered “insight” into the embattled office.

That report, obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive this week, encompassed interviews or surveys of 836 lawyers, investigators, staff and others and turned up widespread dissatisfaction with the agency’s management. Participants complained about a range of problems, from long delays in getting paid to a lack of accountability for those representing indigent defendants.

Public Defense Services provided the contracts to The Oregonian/OregonLive in response to public records requests.

Agency spokesperson Autumn Shreve said she was out of the office Friday and unavailable to comment on the contracts, as was general counsel Eric Deitrick.

Executive Director Stephen Singer did not respond to an email seeking comment and neither did Per Ramfjord, who serves as chair of the commission, which oversees the agency. Ramfjord is a partner at Stoel Rives.

The state public defense agency, with a budget of $355.9 million, administers the public defense system in Oregon. Those services are provided by nonprofit law firms, like Metropolitan Public Defender in the Portland and Hillsboro, and independent lawyers who take on public defense cases.

Its spending on outside consultants comes as the state confronts a public defense crisis, with not enough lawyers to represent dozens of defendants across Oregon, many of them sitting in jails. Lawyers who carry out public defense work say they are overworked and underpaid.

The shortage of public defense lawyers has led Washington County courts to temporarily suspend some arraignments and a large public defense firm to temporarily stop taking some cases. In Multnomah County alone, about 150 criminal defendants lack an attorney, court officials said this week.

The outside contract with Williamson’s firm is focused heavily on communications.

It says the company will help the agency with “crisis communications,” training on dealing with the media and outreach “to key stakeholders in the media to increase their understanding of public defense in Oregon and the crisis of underfunding the system.”

Williamson, whose duties according to the contract involve “government and public affairs” strategy, did not respond to an email Friday from the Oregonian/seeking comment.

Two years ago, Williamson blasted the media on the same day Willamette Week reported on her campaign expenditures during the years she served in the House.

Williamson, a lawyer, then announced she had suspended her campaign for secretary of state.

Oregon campaign finance records show that from March 2014 to August 2019, Williamson’s campaign paid for more than $32,000 in airfare, including trips to Europe, Asia and Hawaii.

During that period, Williamson spent $24,000 on lodging outside of Oregon, including hotels in Los Angeles, Boston, Hong Kong, Munich and Dublin.

Williamson was first elected to the Legislature in 2012 from Portland. As majority leader, Williamson advocated for policies including paid family and medical leave and helped lead the Democratic caucus to a 2019 supermajority that allowed them to pass a long-sought business tax.

She played a leading role in persuading fellow lawmakers to vote for a controversial bill that limits the use of the death penalty in Oregon.

Williamson’s contract with Public Defense Services named three other Strategies 360 employees who would also advise the agency: Amy Ruiz, who served as chief of staff to then-Mayor Sam Adams; Liz Accola Meunier, who served as campaign spokesperson for Gov. Kate Brown in 2016; and Aaron Fiedler, former spokesperson for the House Majority office.

According to the contract, those consultants would each play a role in helping the agency with communications, from “media/reputation management” to “crisis response” planning.

They agreed to also help with lobbying efforts by engaging in “crisis response” with the powerful Ways and Means Committee, the legislative committee that oversees budgets, and to help plan for the 2023 Legislative session.

The contract with the management consultants is focused on the agency’s management and organization.

Tara Herivel, whose practice focuses on habeas corpus cases, has battled the public defense agency over her own pay, a conflict that escalated to the courts this week. In habeas corpus cases, a person in prison asks the court to grant their release.

She estimates that Public Defense Services will owe her thousands of dollars for work she performed on behalf of 15 clients.

Herivel said the previous executive director, Lane Borg, promised to pay her an hourly rate of $100, but that was subsequently reduced to $75.

In an interview Thursday, Herivel said the state office needs better oversight.

“Everything leads back to that,” she said. “This is not an agency that is capable on its own.

She said Public Defense Services claims it doesn’t have funding to defend cases statewide “and then you have these frivolous sounding contracts. How many more examples do you need of an agency that is inept and not capable of running a ship properly?”

Borg stepped down as executive director last year and was succeeded by Singer, who previously worked in public defense in Louisiana.

Borg currently works as a public defense lawyer in Clatsop and Tillamook counties and receives an annual salary of $211,150, according to a copy of his contract with Public Defense Services.

Borg is one of about two dozen attorneys with individual contracts with the state to perform public defense work, according to records provided to the Oregonian in January in response to a public records request.

According to the data the agency provided at that time, all but three receive the same rate as Borg; the others are paid between $193,000 and $195,000.

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