The Oregon Department of Justice in Salem. (Photo by Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The state commission overseeing Oregon’s public defense agency is likely to fire the divisive lawyer in charge of the department on Thursday, barely a week after its first attempt to remove him failed. 

The Public Defense Services Commission met Wednesday to hear advice from state attorneys and discuss the performance of Stephen Singer, director of the state Office of Public Defense Services, but it held off on a vote to fire him because Singer wasn’t available to make his case to the commission. He’ll speak during a public meeting Thursday.  

Since the commission met last week, Chief Justice Martha Walters fired every member of the commission, reappointed those who voted to fire Singer and added four new commissioners. The new commission indicated its willingness to replace Singer, dedicating much of the Wednesday meeting to discussing his potential replacement. The nine-member commission appoints the executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services and is responsible for ensuring the defense of suspects who can’t afford a lawyer is consistent with the state Constitution and U.S. law.

Chief among commissioners’  concerns is how the next head of the agency will work with the Oregon Legislature to secure more money for the state’s flailing public defense system. The state is short about 1,300 public defenders, according to a January report from the American Bar Association. 

The Legislature in March allocated $12.8 million to the Office of Public Defense Services – enough to pay for about 36 new employees. The agency is likely to request additional money in either September or November. 

Per Ramfjord, the commission’s chair and a Portland trial attorney, said the commission hired former House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson as a consultant to help Singer smooth relationships with legislators who control the state purse strings. 

“That legislative consultant informed me multiple times that from her perspective, Mr. Singer failed to take her advice, which was a problem in his relationship with various legislators,” Ramfjord said. 

Commission vice chair Paul Solomon, executive director of prisoner reentry program Sponsors Inc., said he lost confidence in Singer because of his temper. Walters, commissioners and employees including the agency’s deputy director have complained about Singer’s conduct, including an incident Ramfjord described  in which he allegedly yelled and shook his fist at the deputy director during a staff meeting. 

“His ability to lead this agency moving forward, I believe, is damaged beyond repair,” Solomon said. “And as much as I appreciate and I’m actually in favor of many of the things that Director Singer was attempting to do in terms of reforms, I do not see a path forward.”

He added that Singer has not kept the commission informed on the scope of Oregon’s public defense crisis. A May lawsuit from four defendants alleged that 500 people statewide faced criminal charges and had not yet been assigned public defenders. 

“He plays very loose and fast with the facts,” Solomon said. “We still have no idea how many people are actually sitting in custody at this moment without counsel statewide.”

Singer was hired in January from New Orleans, where he was a law professor and public defender credited with rebuilding and reforming the area’s public defense system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

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Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.