Attorney Al Flora won’t remain in charge of the Luzerne County Public Defender’s Office if council confirms the county manager’s nomination of attorney Steven M. Greenwald as chief public defender, but Flora isn’t technically being fired.
Flora could continue working in the office in a non-union “assistant public defender” position at his current salary of $52,178. That position originally was labeled as a secondary “chief public defender” in the 2013 budget, but council changed the name to “assistant” to eliminate confusion that this person also would be in charge.
Flora’s employment status could be an issue because of his pending litigation against the county, which argues the constitutional rights of indigent criminal defendants are being violated because of funding-driven staffing shortages.
He also filed a federal court action seeking an injunction prohibiting the county from firing him for filing the county suit. However, he halted that action last April after county officials agreed they would not seek to fire him.
The agreement reached between the parties acknowledged Flora was acting chief public defender pending Lawton’s decision on who to appoint to the position permanently. The stipulation also said Flora is not in “imminent danger of termination” and won’t be subjected to any retaliatory “adverse employment action.”
Flora, who had applied for the chief public defender position, declined comment Friday on county Manager Robert Lawton’s recommendation to appoint someone else to head the office. Flora cited the pending litigation as the reason he couldn’t comment.
Flora’s attorney, Kim Borland, also declined comment.
Lawton praised the qualifications of Greenwald and declined to discuss Flora.
Flora is scheduled to publicly present an annual report on the public defender’s office budget, caseloads and staffing at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Lawton has asked council to vote on Greenwald’s appointment to the $90,000 chief post at Tuesday’s meeting. It’s among eight division head posts created by home rule.
Flora’s litigation over office staffing has been scheduled for trial June 24. A county judge will decide if additional employees are warranted.
John Dean, the county’s outside attorney, recently said a consultant reviewed prior court transcripts in the case and “already believes the office is properly staffed.”
The office has a $2.7 million budget this year, compared to $2.5 million in 2012. The budget provides funding for 40 positions, including 24 full- and part-time assistant public defenders.
Flora said last month he can’t detail what additional positions he’s seeking because of the pending litigation, though he maintained the office is “still faced with overwhelming caseloads” totalling about 4,000 annually.
The office must defend low-income clients who request representation for misdemeanor or felony charges. It also handles juvenile and state parole cases and represents people facing involuntary commitment to mental-health facilities and criminal contempt in protection-from-abuse cases, he said.
Flora’s legal battle over staffing was highlighted in a front-page USA Today article published last month on the 50th anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling granting the indigent the constitutional right to a lawyer. Flora’s litigation has prompted some area residents to regularly complain about him and seek his dismissal at public council meetings.
Council members are pushing legislators to fund the office, saying Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t allocate funds for indigent defense at the county court level. However, they are not expecting results because the state has refused to fully comply with a mandate to fund county court systems, and public defender’s offices weren’t part of that requirement.