Travis Sakrison
W. Travis Sakrison of the GPDSC said the council remains dedicated to serving its clients. (John Disney/Staff)

An assistant public defender who was fired from his south Georgia post after complaining about deplorable working conditions and a staggering caseload last year has filed suit against the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council and his old office, alleging illegal retaliation under the state’s whistleblower statute.

Former Towaliga Circuit Assistant Public Defender Leo “Jim” Kight Jr. was fired last fall after a series of clashes with his boss, then-Circuit Defender Wanda Johnson, over his efforts, which included asking the chief judge of the Monroe County Superior Court to declare the entire circuit public defender office incapable of providing effective assistance of counsel for the defendants it served.

Kight had also filed an official grievance with the standards council complaining of chronic understaffing, low pay, high caseloads and a sweltering, moldy office. An attorney with the office since its inception in 2005 until his firing, Kight had also pointed out that the statutorily mandated supervisory panel that is supposed to select the circuit PD and provide an annual review of the office’s performance had never convened after its 2004 meeting to appoint Johnson, and had no remaining members.

In September, Johnson was replaced as circuit defender for the circuit, comprised of Butts, Lamar and Monroe counties. Three weeks later, the new circuit defender, Doug Smith, fired Kight.

On Monday, Bondurant Mixson & Elmore attorneys Emmet Bondurant, Christopher Giovinazzo and Jane “Danny” Vincent, as well as Michael Caplan, who recently left Bondurant Mixson for startup firm Caplan Cobb, filed on Kight’s behalf a whistleblower suit in Fulton County Superior Court naming as defendants the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council and its director, W. Travis Sakrison, and the Towaliga CPD office and Smith.

The suit accuses the defendants of violating several state laws, including the failure to appoint and convene the supervisory panel, failure to evaluate Johnson’s performance, maintaining a hazardous workplace and failure to provide adequate representation to indigent defendants in violation of the federal and state constitutions.

In an interview, Vincent noted that Bondurant was the founding chairman of the Standards Council and has long expressed concerns about the agency’s makeup and authority. After Kight was fired “for raising exactly the same type of concerns Emmet had raised,” she said, Caplan and Kight began discussing the former PD’s options.

In a prepared statement, Sakrison said the suit is “part of an ongoing personnel issue in the Towaliga Circuit. The Circuit appears to be doing very well under Doug Smith, the new Circuit Public Defender.

“GPDSC works with people all over the state; it relies on information from them to improve services for its clients and does not retaliate against people for providing that information,” Sakrison wrote.

“We can’t comment on the pending litigation, but I want to make clear that it should not be allowed to harm our commitment to the zealous representation of our clients,” he said.

According to the complaint and other documents, Kight’s path out the door began in May 2013 when he sent a letter to Sakrison expressing his concerns over several issues, including the lack of personnel—at the time there was only one other lawyer in the office—an annual salary tens of thousands of dollars less than comparable prosecutors and PDs in neighboring circuits, and having to work in a dilapidated, moldy house.

He subsequently filed a grievance asserting unsafe work conditions. Kight said Standards Council General Counsel Jan Kankins suggested he bring his other concerns to the attention of the supervisory panel. In trying to do that, Kight found that the panel was nonexistent and had not met since 2004, the complaint said.

In June 2013, Kight recorded a meeting with Johnson during which she said his letter and grievance were “the last straw,” and that his further employment was “not an option,” according to a transcript attached to the complaint.

Even so, Johnson asked Kight to stay long enough to try upcoming cases on his calendar, and he agreed to do so.

The next day Kight filed another grievance alleging retaliatory firing in violation of the state Whistleblower Act.

Four days later he appeared in court to represent a burglary defendant and presented a motion asking the court to declare himself and the Towaliga PD office “per se ineffective,” listing as supporting factors underfunding and understaffing, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, and “misfeasance, non-feasance and malfeasance” on Johnson’s part.

He also said he had been fired and requested a continuance.

Johnson, who was seated at the defense table, denied firing Kight and said she had no idea he was going to file the motion.

Chief Judge Thomas Wilson denied the motion and ordered both Kight and Johnson to represent the defendant. He also granted a continuance, and two days later Kight won an acquittal for his client.

In September, Johnson again fired Kight. Five days later, Sakrison called him to Atlanta for a meeting, during which he was “told he was not fired, to go back to Monroe County and handle the upcoming trial week,” the complaint said.

That same month, Smith was appointed to replace Johnson. In October, Kight was fired for the last time.

Vincent said Kight’s on-again, off-again employment status was symptomatic of the problems facing his office.

“Was he fired, not fired? Nobody knew. It was like pulling teeth to get an answer out of her,” said Vincent, referring to Johnson. “Sakrison didn’t know. It’s illustrative of how out of touch the council was with its PD offices. One of the main things Jim was complaining about was that the whole purpose of the act [creating the Standards Council] was to create some transparency and oversight of the circuit defenders. In the Towaliga circuit, that clearly didn’t happen,” she said.

Since Kight’s departure, there have been some changes made. According to standards council spokeswoman Cheryl Karounos, the PD office now has seven attorneys and has relocated to other lodgings. The supervisory panel, she said, has its “full quorum” of members.

The case is Kight v. Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, No. 2014CV247795.