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

The agency that manages Oregon’s public defense system, the brunt of scathing criticism from attorneys and investigators who say they weren’t paid enough or on time, has hired a former state legislator as a communications consultant and has agreed to hire another company pay to help him restructuring efforts in nearly $400,000 in contracts.

The Office of Public Defense Services on February 24 signed a six-month contract with former House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson for six months retroactive to February 1. Williamson is senior vice president of Portland-based policy consulting firm Strategies 360.

According to a copy of the contract, the State Bureau agreed to pay the firm $120,000 for communications, media relations, and lobbying advice.

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

As part of that deal, the management consultants agreed to produce a report that offered “insights” into the embattled office.

That report, obtained this week by The Oregonian/OregonLive, included interviews or polls with 836 attorneys, investigators, employees and others, and uncovered widespread dissatisfaction with the agency’s management. Participants complained about a range of problems, from long delays in payouts to a lack of accountability on the part of representatives of destitute defendants.

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

Agency spokeswoman 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, nor did Per Ramfjord, who serves as chair of the commission overseeing the agency. Ramfjord is a partner at Stoel Rives.

The $355.9 million state Public Defense Agency manages Oregon’s public defense system. These services are provided by not-for-profit law firms such as Metropolitan Public Defender in Portland and Hillsboro and independent attorneys who handle public defense cases.

His spending on outside counsel comes as the state faces a public defense crisis, with insufficient attorneys to represent dozens of defendants across Oregon, many of whom are in prisons. Lawyers doing public defense work say they are overworked and underpaid.

The lack of public defenders has resulted in Washington County courts suspending some indictment hearings and causing a major public defense firm to suspend some cases. In Multnomah County alone, about 150 criminal defendants lack a lawyer, court officials said this week.

The outside contract with Williamson’s company focuses heavily on communications.

It said the company will assist the agency with “crisis communications,” media handling training, and outreach “to key media stakeholders to improve their understanding of Oregon’s public defense and the system’s underfunding crisis.”

Williamson, whose duties under the contract include “government and public affairs” strategy, did not respond to an email from the Oregonian/for comment on Friday.

Two years ago, Williamson blasted the media on the same day that Willamette Week reported on her campaign spending during her years in the House of Representatives.

Williamson, an attorney, then announced that she had suspended her campaign as secretary of state.

Campaign funding records in Oregon 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 this time, 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 from Portland in 2012. As Majority Leader, Williamson championed policies including paid family and medical leave and helped lead the Democratic faction to a supermajority in 2019 that allowed them to pass a long-awaited corporate tax.

She played a leading role in convincing other lawmakers to vote for a controversial law restricting Oregon’s use of the death penalty.

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 Governor Kate Brown’s 2016 campaign spokeswoman; and Aaron Fiedler, former Speaker of the House Majority Office.

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

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

The contract with the management consultants focuses on the management and organization of the agency.

Tara Herivel, whose practice focuses on habeas corpus cases, has been fighting the public defense agency over her own pay, a dispute that escalated in court this week. In habeas corpus cases, a detained person applies to the court for his or her release.

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

Herivel said the former chief executive, Lane Borg, promised to pay her an hourly rate of $100, but that was later reduced to $75.

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

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

She said the Public Defense Service claims it doesn’t have the resources to defend cases nationwide, “and then you have these frivolous-sounding contracts. How many more examples do you need of an agency that is inept and incapable of running a ship properly?”

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

Borg currently works as a public defender in Clatsop and Tillamook counties and is paid an annual salary of $211,150, according to a copy of his contract with the public defense services.

Borg is one of about two dozen attorneys individually contracted with the state to perform public defense work, according to records presented to the Oregonian in January in response to a public-records request.

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

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