Deadline is Extended for Cordele PD Applications

18th September, 2014
Fulton County Daily Report
Kathleen Baydala Joyner

Court papers filed in dispute allege sexual harassment by interim PD

Officials in charge of filling the vacant circuit public defender position in Cordele are extending the application deadline, ending a dispute in which critics called the hiring process a sham.

The decision to advertise the position more widely and give interested attorneys another 30 days to apply renders moot the Southern Center for Human Rights' request that a judge order a similar result.

But the apparent settlement came too late to prevent the Southern Center from including in its court papers allegations that the lawyer initially appointed to run the Cordele office has sexually harassed at least two women who worked for him.
The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which oversees the PD office in Cordele, said one of the allegations was resolved years ago. The council said it would investigate the other claims.

The Southern Center represents plaintiffs in an underlying lawsuit filed in January alleging poor representation of indigent adults and children accused of crimes in the Cordele circuit.

Stephen Bright, the Southern Center president and senior attorney, said, "We are encouraged that there will be many applicants, that they will hire the most competent and qualified one, and that this will be the first very large and important step toward correcting the neglect and processing of clients by that office."

Bright applied for the Cordele position himself after his group complained that the quick appointment of an interim chief PD, combined with a brief application window, was meant to discourage other applicants so that the interim chief could assume the role permanently.

The indigent defense system, which is represented by the state attorney general's office, contended it followed the law and that the Southern Center's motion for injunctive relief was barred by sovereign immunity.

The compromise came after the Southern Center revealed allegations of sexual harassment against the interim circuit public defender in Cordele, H. Burton Baker. He was the chief PD in Cordele for several years until 2007, when he moved to Tifton to oversee the capital defender's office that works on death penalty cases.

In a brief filed Sept. 12, the Southern Center alleged Baker "maintained a hostile work environment for women in both Cordele and Tifton."

The Southern Center said in hiring Baker to take the interim post in Cordele, the PD council director, W. Travis Sakrison, "either knew about Mr. Baker's misconduct and ignored it, or was unreasonably and insufficiently diligent to discover it."
"Either constitutes a gross abuse of discretion," the Southern Center added.

Attached to the brief were affidavits from two former employees and a memorandum written by Baker's boss, the director of the capital defender office, detailing instances of harassment.

One of the affiants was Stacey Flynn Morris, who worked under Baker's supervision in the capital defender's office from April 2009 until March 2011. She alleged that Baker commented on her body and wardrobe, gave her lingerie and "treated me and fellow employees unfairly when I, or other women, rebuffed his advances."

The other affiant was Jason Carini, who was assistant public defender in Cordele from August 2005 until August 2008. Carini alleged Baker, who was his supervisor until 2007, "tolerated and contributed" to a hostile work environment for women by keeping a photo of a scantily clad actress on his computer screen and refusing to intervene when other male employeesmade sexual comments about female lawyers and social workers.

In his memo, the chief capital defender for the state, Jerry Word, detailed an incident about Baker reported in April 2010 by a woman in the capital defender office. The woman's name was redacted from the copy attached to the Southern Center's filing.

"[Name redacted] told me that she felt her supervisor, Burt Baker, had made inappropriate sexual advances towards her," Word wrote. "She then showed me a card from Mr. Baker. On the inside, it referenced lingerie that apparently accompanied the card."

The memo went on to describe another incident in which Baker showed up unannounced at the woman's house and refused to leave. Word wrote in the memo that he met with Baker to discuss "the fact that his actions had compromised his ability to supervise [name redacted] and that if he treated her different in any way in the future it could be considered retaliation for her disclosure." The two reportedly agreed that Baker would no longer supervise the employee.

In response to the Southern Center's claims, the GPDSC issued a statement saying it was not aware of the complaints against Baker contained in the affidavits and noted that the alleged incidents had occurred four to eight years ago.
"GPDSC finds the behavior alleged in the affidavits absolutely unacceptable," the council's statement said. "GPDSC takes these allegations very seriously and is currently investigating."

The GPDSC added that it was aware of Word's memo. "That matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved at the time," the GPDSC said, noting that it was unaware of any other, more recent complaints.

Baker also responded to the allegations in a written statement: "I was disciplined and demoted several years ago from my supervisory role for inappropriate behavior toward a colleague. I deeply regret the embarrassment and upset I caused both that colleague and my family. As for the affidavits, neither employee made any complaints against me that I am aware of during their employment. I am shocked by these accusations, especially so many years after their departure from the agency. I have worked hard to regain my supervisory title and put my life back on track since that time of personal crisis. As a result, my team in the Tifton Capital Defender office has enjoyed tremendous success for the last few years."

Sakrison said Baker is still the interim PD in Cordele. Sakrison would not say whether Baker, who is among nine applicants for the permanent position, has disqualified himself.

State law requires a supervisory panel within the circuit—in this case, Crisp County Probate Court Judge G. Russell Wright, lawyer Robert Sherrell and a vacant seat—to collect and review applications and then recommend up to five names to the GPDSC executive director.

In its written statement, the council said, "We encourage the panel to look into these concerns and to consider them as they select nominees for the CPD position."

Sakrison said he hopes to fill the circuit public defender position soon, noting that his office will interview the panel's recommended candidates—a process, he said, that could take a couple of weeks.