The commission responsible for helping manage Connecticut’s Division of Public Defender Services has issued a formal letter of reprimand to chief public defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis, claiming that she has failed to address plummeting morale, has levied unfounded allegations of racial discrimination against agency personnel and has not complied with directives.
Commission members issued the letter, dated Oct. 3, to Bowden-Lewis with a warning that if the first-term chief doesn’t address the problems outlined in the memo, she could subject herself “to further disciplinary action.”
Bowden-Lewis was appointed chief public defender last year, receiving much applause as the first Black person to lead the agency. Since then, most members of the commission that appointed her have abruptly resigned without explanation.
The career public defender has also faced allegations of mistreating subordinates, fostering a toxic work environment and inadequately responding to the needs of field attorneys.
In interviews with the Connecticut Mirror last summer, Bowden-Lewis and her supporters pushed back against the criticism, making the case that her decisions and management style have been scrutinized in ways unfamiliar to her predecessors.
But the commission’s letter doubles down on some of the claims previously made against her. It also raised concerns about the state of an agency tasked with representing Connecticut’s most vulnerable residents.
The commission’s chair, retired state Supreme Court justice Richard Palmer, declined to comment further other than to say that he believes the letter speaks for itself.
The five-page memo says that Bowden-Lewis, who also declined an interview, has “failed to acknowledge” that the low morale and dissatisfaction with her leadership, in part, stem from her emphasis on rebranding the division rather than ensuring that “its indigent clients are represented effectively by fully staffed and fully supported field offices around the state.”
It suggests that she hasn’t done enough to make sure that high “caseloads are reduced to the fullest extent possible given available resources,” pointing to her “refusal” to fill 17 vacant and fully-funded positions in fiscal year 2022-2023.
“You have engaged in a practice of marginalizing members of the Division with whom you disagree or who you do not like or respect, and you have engaged in a practice of retaliating against persons who you perceive as standing up to you or who otherwise express their disagreement with you,” the letter says.
The letter goes on to say that Bowden-Lewis frequently talks about collaboration, cooperation, communication and transparency but does not “engage in those critically important practices, either in your dealings with the Commission or in your dealings with members of the Division.”
Specifically, it references a dispute between Palmer and Bowden-Lewis.
The commission said there was an agreement between the two that Bowden-Lewis would hold off on paying a non-refundable $15,000 deposit for an event at the Holiday Hill in Prospect until the commission had an opportunity to review it. Members said they sought pre-approval because a prior gathering at the same location had cost upwards of $30,000, but only a third of the division had attended.
“When informed by a Division employee that a check in the amount of $15,000 had been issued and forwarded to Holiday Hills by the state Office of the Comptroller due to your failure to take the necessary action to ensure that that deposit was not paid,” the letter says, “the Chairperson was required to make a formal emergency request of the Office of the Comptroller that, if possible, payment of the check be stopped, which that Office succeeded in doing.”
The commission also alleges that Bowden-Lewis improperly defended a decision to not investigate a formal complaint made by a division employee regarding derogatory comments, slurs or jokes on the basis of their race, color and national origin.
She has treated the commission and members in the division in a “disrespectful and highly antagonistic manner,” according to the letter. At one point, the letter says, Bowden-Lewis made unfounded racial discrimination allegations against Palmer, a white man.
Members also condemned a letter that Bowden-Lewis’ attorney sent to the previous commission, warning that the micromanaging of her decisions was a pretext for discrimination.
“Those complaints are baseless because they take issue with conduct and decisions by members of the Commission that fall squarely within their lawful duties and responsibilities,” the new commission, which is more racially diverse than the one prior, wrote in its reprimand. “You knew or should have known that those allegations of discrimination were subject to public disclosure and that they inevitably would result in a loss of public confidence in the Commission and in the Chief Public Defender.”
In her previous interview with the CT Mirror, Bowden-Lewis said she remained committed to her three-prong vision to improve recruitment and retention to diversify staff, rebrand the division through community engagement and revitalize the agency to ensure workers feel valued.
Bowden-Lewis also said that she didn’t see her goals and providing adequate courtroom representation as mutually exclusive.
As for her treatment by some in the division, notably the previous commission, she said there were “some situations that did not follow precedent and did not meet what has been the standard.”
The letter sets forth expectations that commission members want Bowden-Lewis to comply with to prevent further disciplinary action, which includes treating all division employees with respect, working with the top officials in an “open and truthful manner,” and making reasonable efforts to fill vacancies in the division.