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CT chief public defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis placed on leave

TaShun Bowden-Lewis says hello to the staff of the public defender division before a meeting in September of 2022.
Yehyun Kim
CT Mirror
TaShun Bowden-Lewis says hello to the staff of the public defender division before a meeting in September 2022.

Connecticut’s Public Defender Services Commission on Friday placed Chief Public Defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis on paid administrative leave, following months of disputes with the oversight body and recent reports that she allegedly instructed a subordinate to access privileged email accounts belonging to people critical of her.

The commission announced its decision to place Bowden-Lewis on leave, pending an investigation, after a closed-door executive session meeting on Friday evening.

“The commission will complete the investigation as soon as reasonably possible, and, upon the conclusion of the investigation, which may involve allegations in addition to those identified in this letter, the chief public defender will have an opportunity to address the allegations investigated by the commission,” said Richard Palmer, a retired state Supreme Court justice and the chairperson of the commission.

According to a copy of a letter handed to Bowden-Lewis at the meeting and obtained by The Connecticut Mirror, the commission placed the chief public defender on leave due to allegations that she accessed the state email accounts of two senior division attorneys “without a legitimate basis for doing so and in retaliation against those two attorneys for criticizing you, disagreeing with you, and/or cooperating with the commission.”

The two attorneys were Deborah Del Prete Sullivan, the agency’s legal counsel, and Joseph Lopez, the division’s director of complex litigation.

It also alleges that Bowden-Lewis placed a division employee on paid administrative leave for “no valid reason” and issued a letter of reprimand to another employee for “no valid reason and in retaliation against that employee for disagreeing with you and cooperating with the Commission.”

The panel reversed Bowden-Lewis’ decisions to discipline the two employees — Greg Dion, the agency’s information technology director, who had been placed on administrative leave, and Sullivan, who was issued the reprimand letter.

The letter instructs Bowden-Lewis not to enter any division facilities or offices unless otherwise instructed by the panel, not to contact any clients or staff in the division, and to make herself available throughout the period of her administrative leave as required.

Bowden-Lewis left the meeting without publicly responding to the commission’s decision.

The discipline toward Bowden-Lewis, who made history two summers ago when she was appointed the first Black chief public defender, is the latest progression in a series of disputes between her and the commission.

Last year, the body took the rare step of issuing a letter of reprimand to Bowden-Lewis, claiming that she had failed to address plummeting morale, levied unfounded allegations of racial discrimination against agency personnel and not complied with directives from her higher-ups.

Before the reprimand letter, most members of the commission that appointed Bowden-Lewis had resigned. Emails from employees surfaced suggesting racism in the division. Some attorneys blamed her for what they described as a toxic work environment and inadequate responses to the needs of those in the courtroom. At public meetings, other lawyers questioned both her credibility and integrity.

In her first interview addressing the claims last summer, Bowden-Lewis said she remained committed to her three-prong vision to improve recruitment and retention to diversify staff, rebrand the division through community engagement and revitalize the agency to ensure workers feel valued.

As for her treatment by some in the division, notably the previous commission members who resigned, Bowden-Lewis said there were “some situations that did not follow precedent and did not meet what has been the standard.”

On Friday, the union representing public defenders issued a vote of no confidence in Bowden-Lewis’ leadership.

“While we have made concerted efforts over the past year to work with the Chief, the perpetual state of controversy and dysfunction at the highest levels has been an unwelcome distraction in serving the interests of our clients. It has harmed the public’s trust in the Division and contributed to low morale among employees,” the union said in a statement.

“We approve the Commission’s decision tonight of placing Attorney Bowden-Lewis on administrative leave,” the statement said. “We urge the Commission to provide Attorney Bowden-Lewis with the appropriate due process protections that all public defenders champion every day and, if there is just cause, remove her from her position as Chief so that the Division can refocus its efforts on our mission to provide the best possible legal defense to the people of Connecticut.”

Attorney John Day, who serves as the agency’s deputy chief public defender, will assume the role of chief pending the investigation.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

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