Chief Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty was suspended indefinitely Monday pending an investigation.
Moriarty, who in 2014 became the first woman to hold the job, said she received the startling news from the state chief public defender in an e-mail when she was at work early in the day.
The notice directed her to leave her office computer and said she was suspended pending “further review of issues before the board,” she said. She will continue to get paid.
State Chief Public Defender Bill Ward made the decision public when he sent word to Hennepin County district judges just before noon, telling them of Moriarty’s situation and directing them to take concerns to other high-ranking attorneys in the county Public Defender’s Office.
Said Moriarty: “I don’t know what happens next. This is a complete surprise, out of the blue.”
However, she said the first sign of trouble came last Wednesday when she was summoned to appear before a State Board of Public Defense committee.
The committee included three panel members — attorney and former Justice Sam Hanson, Edina lawyer Dan Le and board vice chairwoman Molly Jannetta of Duluth — along with Ward and Kevin Kajer, chief administrator of the board, she said.
Moriarty said the board asked about her “inflexibility” with other criminal justice officials; having “excessive absences” with no explanation; an allegation of “racism” she had made; a 9-month-old retweet referring to the anniversary of a lynching; and a “culture of fear” in the office she runs.
She disputed all the claims and was baffled by many of them. “Nobody had brought any of this to my attention,” she said.
Ward didn’t return a phone call, but issued a single statement through a spokesman: “Effective December 23, Mary Moriarty will be on paid leave pending a review of issues that have been brought to the attention of members of the Board of Public Defense. This statement will serve as the office’s only comment on this situation while this matter remains under review.”
The state Public Defender’s Office hires and appoints the chief public defenders throughout the state.
It’s unclear what will happen next with the Hennepin County office. The county’s criminal justice system is the busiest in the state; the Public Defender’s Office has the equivalent of 118 full-time employees and opens 60,000 criminal cases every year.
As required by the U.S. Constitution, public defenders represent clients who cannot afford their own attorneys.
As the county’s chief public defender, Moriarty is an administrator. She came up through the ranks, defending clients in numerous cases.
Moriarty said one panel member asked her about comments she made to the Hennepin County Board during her budget discussion this fall. In answering a question from a commissioner, Moriarty had said that having the county take back control of the office would help with the pay disparity between public defenders and prosecutors.
The starting salary for a public defender is about $60,000, roughly $10,000 less than for an assistant Hennepin County attorney, she said. As the attorneys accrue experience, the salary gap grows, she said. The discrepancy has been a long-standing concern for the county office.
Moriarty said one commissioner said to her that it “appeared from my comments that I didn’t want to work for the state board.”
As for her absences, she said she often works 10-hour days as well as weekends. She said she does travel to make presentations or attend work-related events, but that Ward was aware of her activities.
“My management staff knows where I am and we’re in constant contact,” she said.
Moriarty sent e-mail notifications to the county’s staff, saying, “As painful as this is for me, I want you to know that the strength of the office is you.”