Luzerne County Controller Walter Griffith is questioning Chief Public Defender Al Flora's recent decision to send three workers to Puerto Rico for training.
I think it's excessive, Griffith said, noting the Public Defender's Office is slated to receive $12,000 for meetings, conferences and training next year compared to his allocation of $2,000.
The county paid $2,860 for lodging, meals and airfare, according to invoices supplied by Griffith.
The conference in Rio Grande ran from Oct. 26-28, though two days of additional lodging were provided because of Hurricane Sandy, the invoices show.
Flora said the intense training in juvenile justice issues isn't offered in Pennsylvania and is part of an invitation-only training summit held annually by the National Juvenile Defender Center.
Two assistant public defenders and a social worker – all in the office's juvenile unit – attended the sessions, and the county did not have to pay the equivalent of $2,100 in tuition, he said.
Flora said public defender employees from across the country attend the training, and he has no control over the location.
If I could get that training at the state level, I would take advantage of it, but it's not there, Flora said. This is not a group of people sitting around a swimming pool having cocktails. It is not a junket.
Flora said he has attended the center's annual training sessions in the past and believes the travel is well worth it. Several office lawyers attended last year's training in Seattle, though he was able to obtain grant funding to cover the expense, which he was unsuccessful in securing this year.
Flora said he had the two lawyers share a hotel room in Puerto Rico to save money, and the lawyers received 17.5 continuing legal education, or CLE, credits.
The collective bargaining agreement covering the office's unionized assistant public defenders says the county must reimburse the cost of up to 12 CLE credits for full-time assistants and six credits for part-time assistants. The agreement says this coverage is for classes held within the state and/or a location closest to Luzerne County.
Flora said providing advanced education is the county's duty. He pointed to the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which reviewed the kids-for-cash scandal in the county and concluded the public defender's office had insufficient training and staff.
In light of the Interbranch report, I ensure my staff receives as much advanced training as possible, he said. It seems to me people are forgetting very quickly some of the findings in that report.
Flora said he had money in his budget to cover the expense and was highly critical of Griffith, who said he plans to raise the issue at tonight's county council budget hearing. Flora, who is scheduled to discuss his budget at tonight's session, said he already explained the rationale for the training to Griffith.
In my view, Walter has no business butting into the education programs that I provide for the staff here or determining what's needed, Flora said. I am not going to be pushed around by a mechanic – that simple, he added, referring to Griffith's prior work as owner of an auto repair shop.
Griffith also sent an email to county council Monday questioning increased staffing for the Public Defender's Office in the 2013 budget.
The county's proposed budget allocates $104,150 for meetings, conferences and training countywide. The public defender's office is budgeted to spend $2.7 million next year, an increase of $249,065.
A judge ordered the county in June to provide adequate funding for the public defenders' office to represent indigent defendants. The order stemmed from a suit filed by Flora through the American Civil Liberties Union arguing the office didn't have sufficient staffing and funding needed for adequate defense.
Luzerne County Council's public budget hearing starts at 6 p.m. tonight in the county's Emergency Management Agency building, Water Street, Wilkes-Barre.