WILKES-BARRE, PA. (AP) – Salaries for two chief public defenders are funded in the Luzerne County budget proposed for next year.
One is a new full-time chief with an annual salary of $90,000. The other is a $52,178-a-year job held by acting Chief Public Defender Al Flora Jr.
At the county council meeting Tuesday, county Manager Robert Lawton said the person appointed as the new full-time chief could reallocate funds within the office next year, and he added one of the jobs could get another title.
When Councilman Edward Brominski pressed Lawton for more answers, Lawton said “pending litigation” prevented him from responding. Flora initiated a lawsuit in April alleging gross underfunding of his office.
“We can’t fire him,” Councilman Jim Bobeck said to Brominski. “It’s part of the litigation.”
Flora withdrew a request for a federal injunction after the county agreed he “will not be subject to any adverse employment action in retaliation for First Amendment protected activity” and “is not currently in imminent danger of termination,” a court filling from April said. Flora could still seek an injunction in the future and “shall remain in his current capacity until” Lawton appoints a chief public defender, the court filing said.
Senior Judge Joseph M. Augello appointed former Judge Joseph Van Jura as a special court master to help settle the lawsuit filed in county court over office funding. County commissioners, who were in charge of the state-mandated form of government abolished Jan. 2 by the home-rule charter, appointed Flora as chief public defender in 2010.
On Tuesday, Flora said he will apply for the full-time job as chief public defender, explaining his private law practice is shrinking and he plans to retire in about four years. Council must vote to confirm a permanent chief public defender in the new home-rule government.
Flora has been representing disgraced former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. as a private defense attorney. Ciavarella and former judge Michael T. Conahan are in federal prison because they accepted $2.8 million in kickbacks for placing juveniles in for-profit detention centers.
A state panel charged with investigating the kids-for-cash scandal concluded in 2010 that Ciavarella was able to incarcerate juveniles at twice the state average, in part because public defenders paid little attention to juvenile court.
Flora said the scandal was the result of office underfunding. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is representing Flora and noted in filings that Flora has taken steps to improve juvenile representation since taking over as chief public defender in 2010. Flora created a separate juvenile unit and transferred an attorney from the adult unit to the juvenile unit, but county leaders have “refused to provide” Flora with “the resources necessary to make similar and badly needed improvements to the Adult Unit,” the ACLU wrote in court filings.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Flora defended expenses from sending three employees from his office to Puerto Rico in October for training on juvenile defense. Controller Walter L. Griffith Jr. said spending more than $2,800 on the trip was excessive, but Flora said the training in Puerto Rico was a good deal because the county didn’t have to pay for tuition.
Lawton proposed spending $2.7 million next year on the public defender’s office. This year’s allocation is $2.5 million. The cost of wages and benefits for Flora’s job is $74,921 next year.