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At final hearing, TaShun Bowden-Lewis seeks ‘common ground’

Connecticut Chief Public Defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis provides closing remarks during a hearing to determine her future.
Connecticut Chief Public Defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis provides closing remarks during a hearing to determine her future.

In closing statements during a hearing to determine her future leading the Division of Public Defender Services, Chief Public Defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis on Thursday offered an olive branch to the agency’s regulatory oversight body: “I am ready and willing to talk and find a common ground.”

Her remarks capped two public hearings, a result of the Public Defender Services Commission placing Bowden-Lewis on paid administrative leave following recurring disputes between her and the panel, a letter of reprimand and allegations that she improperly instructed a subordinate to access email accounts belonging to people critical of her.

Bowden-Lewis, who made history two summers ago when she became Connecticut’s first Black chief public defender, is also facing accusations of unethical and untruthful behavior, bullying people critical of her decisions and unfairly levying claims of racism against her adversaries, all of which were detailed in the 16 charges brought forth by the commission.

During the two meetings, she argued that none of her conduct violated state law, that any activity she engaged in fell under her authority as chief, and that she is deserving of a fair chance to learn from and grow from her mistakes, similar to the opportunities afforded to her predecessors.

But, she said, the commission has undermined her decisions and resisted opportunities to establish a productive working relationship — a consequence of differing interpretations of the Connecticut statute outlining the roles of the commission and the chief.

State law requires that the commission afford the career attorney a hearing before it can make a decision regarding her future, which could include termination from office. Bowden-Lewis had requested that the commission conduct the hearings publicly.

Retired Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer indicated that the commission would announce its decision at a meeting in the coming weeks.

Herman Woodard, an attorney who serves on the Public Defender Services Commission, at left, confers with Chairman Richard N. Palmer and attorney Michael Jefferson during Thursday’s hearing.
Herman Woodard, an attorney who serves on the Public Defender Services Commission, at left, confers with Chairman Richard N. Palmer and attorney Michael Jefferson during Thursday’s hearing.

Roughly two dozen people attended the hearing on Thursday. The exchanges between Bowden-Lewis and the commission were much more tame than the previous meeting, when members grew irritable about what they said was the chief providing unsatisfactory answers to their questions.

Bowden-Lewis and her attorney, Thomas W. Bucci, decided not to cross-examine any of the individuals who have levied accusations against her, instead focusing their attention on closing remarks.

Bucci testified that he and Bowden-Lewis don’t consider the hearing a full trial proceeding with a neutral decision-maker and emphasized that they are not waiving any due process claims. He argued that the commission’s authority has limits, as outlined by statute, and that neither the challenging of their decisions nor any of the accusations against Bowden-Lewis constitute just cause for discipline. He described the commission’s charges regarding Bowden-Lewis’s claims of discrimination as “retaliatory” and said they violate civil rights employment practices.

“I would ask the commission to follow the guidelines of just cause and not assume that you have absolute discretion and your decisions are unappealable, and what’s done here ends here,” Bucci said.

Bowden-Lewis later said that she was thankful for her supporters, that her decades of work as a public defender have focused on service, that she never intended to offend anyone during her time as chief and was sorry for ever doing so, and that she feels that the commission has unfairly hyper-scrutinized and micromanaged her decisions.

“Do not be discouraged by what you have read and seen. Chase no lies, and know that what you read and what people say is not always the truth,” Bowden-Lewis said. “Use this as more fire to force the doors to open and set the standard. I was told by a member of this commission, ‘Shut up and do what you were told.’ I was told by a member of this commission, ‘It’s not about what is right, about the truth or integrity.’ Don’t believe that. That is foolishness, and that is false.”

The commission is considering more than a dozen charges in its deliberations regarding Bowden-Lewis’ future. It includes claims of “disrespectful” treatment of two division employees — former Human Resources Director Erin Ryan and former Executive Assistant Leonie Campbell — whom the commission believes she treated unfairly because she wanted different people in those positions.

The charges also include the alleged unfair treatment of two senior division attorneys — Deborah Del Prete Sullivan, the agency’s legal counsel, and Joseph Lopez, the division’s director of complex litigation — whose emails she “inappropriately” accessed, along with Palmer’s, allegedly because of their criticism of her.

They accused Bowden-Lewis of dishonesty with the commission, such as promising to post a position to assist Lopez but ultimately not doing so because of her contempt for him.

They cited her alleged “refusal” to accept responsibility for her actions. For example, she suggested that the commission was treating her unfairly when it admonished her for not taking an appropriations request to the panel, as required by state law, before sending it to the governor and his budget office. She said she was complying with what she understood to be standard practice with previous chiefs, as communicated to her by her budget team.

And the charges highlight her alleged unwillingness to recognize the authority of the commission, which includes the approval of decisions regarding the budget, the establishment of divisions, facilities and offices within the agency, and personnel matters that the chief deems necessary, while the chief is responsible for the overall direction of the division.

The charges also point to her personal quarrels with Palmer over Bowden-Lewis’ belief that the commission has improperly undermined her decisions.

Bowden-Lewis noted that while an inquiry into allegations of mistreatment, conducted by the law firm Shipman & Goodwin, concluded that she had bullied or marginalized employees who she did not favor, it also determined that none of her conduct amounted to discrimination, harassment or an illegal hostile work environment under state law.

While the commission concluded that Bowden-Lewis had ordered a subordinate to improperly access emails that Palmer said were legally privileged, she emphasized that members of a state agency should not expect privacy when it comes to their emails. She said she asserted her authority as the chief to oversee the email communications between her subordinates and others due to a lack of transparency from people like Sullivan, the legal counsel, regarding the division’s operations.

Additionally, Bowden-Lewis expressed her desire for a fair chance to learn and grow on the job.

The first meeting was packed with division employees, who were mostly white, while many of Bowden-Lewis’ supporters, most of whom were Black, sat either directly behind her or opposite the agency’s staff. It grew tense as some commission members exhibited irritation, raised their voice or cut off Bowden-Lewis during their exchanges with her.

Members of the public gasped, remarked or were visibly disturbed by the heated exchanges with Bowden-Lewis, which on at least two occasions resulted in commission members asking people in the crowd to keep quiet.

But on Thursday, Bowden-Lewis publicly urged all of her supporters to do the opposite.

“No matter what happens, this is bigger than me. This is bigger than the commission.” Bowden-Lewis said. “This is about the people. So let’s do this.”

This story was originally published by The Connecticut Mirror on April 25, 2024. This story has been updated.

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