Bawdy banter with crude sexual and sometimes racist overtones is commonplace in the Santa Fe offices of the public defender, says a staff attorney who claims he was singled out for his own off-the-cuff comments after he confronted management about funding and staffing problems.
Public defender William Snowden provided detailed examples of these off-color discussions in a six-page letter he sent to the state Public Defender Commission earlier this month. In the letter, he also accuses members of management of engaging in unprofessional, violent and illegal behavior, including sexual harassment and drug use.
Snowden’s boss, District Defender Morgan Wood, and Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur, who oversees public defender offices across the state, declined to address the specific allegations in Snowden’s letter, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.
Both also denied Snowden’s claim that he is being targeted for speaking up about pay and workload issues, saying the issues the lawyer had identified in an Oct. 31 letter to Wood — which also was signed by a half-dozen fellow employees— are well-known and often discussed.
“If I retaliated against everybody who raised the issue of lack of resources in the public defender’s department, I wouldn’t have anyone left,” Baur said. “It’s an absurd idea in this environment when I and all of us have been raising this constantly for years.”
Snowden wrote that his intention in writing to the commission was not to “dime-out” his colleagues, but to show that the public defender’s office is a unique environment where attorneys often deal with the “daily trauma” of defending people charged “with all manner of cruelty and depravity” in ways outsiders might consider offensive.
Snowden said he wrote to the commission after learning he was being investigated for allegedly making racist and sexist comments in conversations he said occurred about a year ago.
“The behavior for which I alone am now accused is not only routinely ignored but is accepted and even applauded,” Snowden wrote.
Snowden says in his letter that a high-ranking member of the administration pulled him aside during a party attended by judges, police officers and lawyers and “shocked” him with a “hand to hand drug transaction,” giving him something to smoke that would “relax” him.
That supervisor did not return a call seeking comment.
In addition to raising concerns about low pay, high caseloads and under-representation of clients in Española Magistrate Court in the Oct. 31 letter to Wood, Snowden said he also spoke out about the issues at a Dec. 18 meeting, and learned a few weeks later he was being investigated for alleged offensive remarks.
In his letter this month to the Public Defender Commission, Snowden said Baur himself has made inappropriate remarks to co-workers and was so “inappropriately aggressive” in his “friendly overtures” to a female attorney at an overnight conference that a bystander noticed the woman’s discomfort and offered to accompany her back to her room.
Baur said he couldn’t address the specifics of the Snowden’s complaint because of his “duty to protect the employees’ reputations and the confidentiality of any potential disciplinary action. I will say, however, that the allegations made against me are completely false.”
Snowden said one complaint against him concerns a conversation with female co-workers in which several women were joking about offering to let boyfriends or husbands sample breast milk.
Snowden said he recalls one of the women offered to let him try some, to which he replied something along the lines of “I prefer drinking it straight from the tap.”
If he did make the comment, Snowden said, “it would have been in reference to my wife, not her.”
In the second case, Snowden said, human resource investigators asked him if he had ever used “the N word.”
He said Monday he wasn’t sure exactly what is being alleged in that instance, but that he does remember a conversation in which he remarked that an African-American prosecutor had “hair like Sideshow Bob,” a yellow-colored character from the animated TV series The Simpsons.
Snowden said one of the women he was talking to said the comment was racist and the group subsequently engaged in a lengthy conversation about when, if ever, use of “the N-word” is appropriate.
One of the attorneys Snowden names in the complaint as someone who has participated in one of the vulgar discussions in the office said Snowden’s version of the exchange “was definitely not my recollection of that conversation.”
But fellow public defender Damian Horne — who is himself locked in a legal battle with the administration — said he believes there is validity to Snowden’s claim that he is being retaliated against for acting as an unofficial labor representative with management.
“These types of comments are so rife in the public defender’s department,” Horne said, that it strikes him as odd for Snowden to be “suddenly singled out because he agitated for smaller caseloads and more pay.”
Thomas J. Clear III, chairman of the Public Defender Commission, which hires the chief public defender and sets policy for public defender offices statewide, said the commission plans to discuss the issue in a closed-door session at its February meeting.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 505-986-3068 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @phaedraann.