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To avert layoffs, public defender retires early

Updated: 2013-05-03T05:14:17Z

By MARK MORRIS

The Kansas City Star

Western Missouri’s top federal public defender has resigned, saying he did so to prevent laying off other lawyers in his office who also defend poor clients.

Ray Conrad, who has led the federal public defender’s office since 1980, blamed his earlier-than-planned retirement on the federal sequester, which has left his office short of the resources needed to defend clients charged with crimes in federal court.

“When this thing started I told the staff I was committed to job security,” Conrad said in an interview Thursday. “I could not bring myself to say you have to leave without just cause, just because of a lack of money.”

Conrad, 73, said that by retiring effective June 1, he can avoid staff cuts and restore some money for resources that are important in defending the office’s clients. With savings from his salary, and that of a senior investigator who also is retiring, Conrad said he could cover a $270,000 budget shortfall looming in the next fiscal year, which starts in October.

Currently, the office employs 35 people, including 15 attorneys and eight investigators. Public defenders represent about 65 percent of the roughly 750 criminal defendants charged in western Missouri each year.

Conrad cautioned that his resignation should not be interpreted as a protest action. Like the chief federal public defender in southern Ohio, who took a similar step last month, Conrad said he was looking for a solution, not a political statement.

Before announcing his retirement to judges and his staff earlier this week, Conrad said he had planned to serve out his entire four-year term, to which he was appointed in October 2012.

Since April 12, employees in his office have taken 20 percent pay cuts to keep working without layoffs. An unexpected federal appropriation since then has allowed Conrad to reduce that pay cut to only 10 percent.

Conrad’s current crisis began Feb. 14, when he learned from the courts that he would have to cut 5 percent of his budget for the rest of the year. About two weeks later, sequestration went into effect, slicing another 5.5 percent from his budget.

Immediately, Conrad said, he began cutting spending in the office, eliminating raises, travel reimbursements and halting the purchase of new computers and software.

Other reductions, however, cut very close to what defense lawyers need to prepare cases that meet prosecutors on something close to a level playing field.

Conrad eliminated money for interpreters, expert witnesses — such as doctors and computer experts — and transcripts important to make an appeals case complete.

“They’re absolutely critical,” Conrad said. “It’s the record of what happened at the trial or at sentencing.”

Judges, he said, have been very understanding and now are studying ways to find resources for public defenders to prepare cases that meet constitutional requirements for fair due process.

Anita Burns, an assistant public defender, said news of Conrad’s departure hit his staff hard.

“Ray has worked too hard and too long to be forced to leave to save his crew,” Burns said, her voice cracking. “I’ve never cried in this job in 15 years. It’s personal. It’s our family.”

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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