Sources: County forced public defender out
Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/14/2010 09:02:19 PM PST

The two top administrators at the San Bernardino County Public Defender’s Office – Public Defender Doreen Boxer and Assistant Public Defender Lauri Ferguson – resigned Tuesday amid allegations of mismanagement and plummeting morale in the office.

Chief Deputy Public Defender Phyllis Morris-Green, who has worked in the office since 1984, was appointed Boxer’s successor on an interim basis. She placed Martin Dante, the office’s head investigator, on paid administrative leave until further notice, county spokesman David Wert said.

Some in the office complained that Dante – under the direction of Boxer and Ferguson – conducted overly aggressive personnel investigations, which contributed to the sinking morale at the office.

“The stories we got was that he conducted some extraordinarily harsh investigations on Boxer’s and Ferguson’s behalf,” said Grover Merritt, a county prosecutor and former president of the San Bernardino County Public Attorney’s Association, the union representing both prosecutors and deputy public defenders. “They had extraordinarily harsh personnel investigations for the smallest things, and many veterans of the office were put through meat grinders, and they shouldn’t have.”

Merritt commended the county for moving to remove Boxer and Ferguson from office.

“The attorneys in that office have been under stress for far too long at the behest of Boxer’s management. This is a good move for the county and those employees,” Merritt said.

The union had pushed hard for the ouster of Boxer and Ferguson in the past six months.

Not all in the employ of the Public Defender’s Office, however, see it that way.

“My contact with … Doreen Boxer has always been positive. She has a strong management style directed towards getting the job done,” said J.P. Hargis, an investigator at the office, in an e-mail.

He said the timing of Boxer’s resignation “smacks of political considerations.”

“I find it unfortunate that a good boss is biting the bullet over what amounts to specious allegations and political concerns,” Hargis said. “I would suggest to those so intent upon dumping Ms. Boxer to be careful what they ask for. They just might get it.”

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors received Boxer’s resignation letter at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, during a closed-door meeting, Wert said.

Last week, Boxer was given an ultimatum by the county: Resign or be fired, according to top county officials who did not want to be named.

“I hereby resign from county employment as Public Defender effective June 30, 2011,” Boxer said in her resignation letter.

Boxer will be on paid leave until May 11, and thereafter use her accrued vacation, holiday, and administrative leave balances through June 30. Per her settlement agreement, Boxer’s resignation is not an admission of liability.

Wert said the allegations of mismanagement and plummeting morale in the Public Defenders Office were not part of any employment-related discussions between the county and Boxer.

Ferguson will remain on paid administrative leave until the end of the month, and Dante will remain on paid leave pending the outcome of an administrative investigation, Wert said.

Some longtime deputy public defenders cited Boxer’s and Ferguson’s management styles in their decisions to leave the office.

Jeff Lawrence was one of them. He worked at the office for 12 years before leaving in October to practice criminal law privately in San Bernardino.

“It’s a welcome change. It was a long time coming, and those people got what they deserved,” Lawrence said Tuesday.

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