Chris Gelardi


Distrust, Power Wrangling, and the Battle Over Rochester’s Next Public Defender

Read the full piece in New York Focus

Monroe County, home to Rochester, has been without a top public defender for more than 230 days. There has been no shortage of candidates to fill the position, including several with extensive experience in the public defender’s office, which represents people who can’t afford their own lawyers in criminal and family court. But a struggle in the county legislature, the body tasked with filling the position, has led to an impasse.

At the center of the struggle is Sabrina LaMar, the legislature’s president and current ringmaster of an ideologically fluctuating Rochester political faction. LaMar, a Democrat who elbowed her way into the president’s seat by forging an agreement with Republicans, has owned the appointment process. She created the committee tasked with whittling down the candidate pool and chose most of its members. She has portrayed the final hiring decision as hers to make unilaterally, even though it requires a majority vote in the legislature. She has misconstrued complaints against public defenders to boost her preferred nominee. And she has delayed putting her nominee up for a vote — the two finalist candidates were announced four months ago — as he likely doesn’t have enough support among her colleagues in the legislature.

The nominee, Buffalo-based attorney Robert Fogg, also lacks support from rank and file public defenders — in considerable part because he is LaMar’s pick, which strips him of the benefit of the doubt and raises fears that he will disrupt the fine-tuned operations of their widely respected office, or even compromise its independence. LaMar and her selection committee have done little to allay public defenders’ worries: They’ve largely shut them out of deliberations and offered little insight into Fogg’s ideas about public defense and plans for the job.

Eight current and recently former public defenders who spoke to New York Focus explained how the politically charged appointment process has fostered widespread mistrust of Fogg and bred an atmosphere of cynicism and resentment within their office. It especially didn’t help when, at a press conference announcing Fogg’s nomination, LaMar unequivocally bashed the public defenders, accusing them of a “lack of compassion, empathy, and understanding.”

Many of the public defenders expressed concern about the ongoing turmoil’s effects on their office’s ability to retain staff and hire for its more than 20 open attorney positions. Attracting talent to western New York is already difficult, they said, and uncertainty over the next head of the chronically underfunded 170-person office — which represents more than 15,000 people a year — is making it an even taller task. Across the country, unsustainably high caseloads and overwork are leading public defenders to burn out and quit.

“People research the office before applying, and they’re like, ‘What’s going on with the public defender position — all this controversy?’” said Gabriela Wolfe, who worked at the public defender’s office and was on its hiring committee until last month. “In order to be as competitive as possible, we need to have our house in order.”

The situation has exacerbated years-old tensions simmering in Rochester and Monroe County, and reveals the extent to which the local politics are hung up on deep distrust and sectional power wrangling — even when it comes to what is in many other municipalities a routine, uncontentious appointment. Fogg is caught in the middle of these tensions, which have already eaten up about a third of the next public defender’s first two-year term.

Further complicating the appointment battle is LaMar’s assertion that Monroe County needs a Black top public defender. (Fogg is Black. The other finalist for the position, who has worked in the office for 28 years and is serving as an interim manager, is white.) While most of her opponents agree that there is a need for more public defender diversity, they question how LaMar — who has falsely asserted that Fogg would be the county’s first person of color in the top public defender job — is going about providing it.

“I’m a Black woman attorney. I’ve had to deal with people thinking I’m the diversity hire, or I’m the diversity scholarship,” said Natalie Ann Knott, who worked in the public defender’s office from 2017 to December 2021. “To see Black political leadership making that nightmare a kind of reality — what kind of employment standards is the county being held to?”

Public defenders said they have called, emailed, and sent letters expressing their concerns to LaMar’s office and to the selection committee she assembled, to no response. They’ve become so perturbed by the appointment process that, this week, they announced their intention to form a union, organizing “to prevent their office from being used as a political pawn in local political conflicts.”

After requesting an interview with LaMar, New York Focus received a call from her special assistant, Vincent Felder, who rebuffed criticisms. “The fact is, we got the best candidate possible for the job, and all these other things are being brought in to obscure that,” he said. Felder asserted that politicization and an insular public defender’s office are what have tarnished the appointment process.

“We’re caught in the middle of some kind of political gunfire here with Sabrina LaMar,” said one veteran public defender, who asked to remain anonymous because staff aren’t permitted to speak to the press. “She’s making our lives a living hell.”

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