The Baltimore County Public Defender and the four supervising attorneys in the juvenile division of the agency’s Baltimore City office have been fired.
Thelma Triplin, whose leadership of the county office was publicly called into question as part of the firing of former State Public Defender Nancy Forster in August 2009, was terminated Thursday, according to sources within the Office of the Public Defender. Donald E. Zaremba is now acting public defender in Baltimore County.
The juvenile division supervisors — David Addison, John Deros, Barbara Kirsch and Leonard Schwartz — were fired Friday morning. David Fishkin, who had led the beleaguered juvenile division of 28 lawyers, was not fired but will be reassigned within the agency, the sources said.
Rumors of other firings at the approximately 900-person OPD swirled Friday, but they were unconfirmed as of press time.
Reached late Friday afternoon, State Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe Jr. offered no explanation for the confirmed staffing changes.
“We don’t comment on personnel decisions or reasons for personnel decisions,” he said. “But I can say that any decision we make is generated by our desire for quality representation and our desire to improve representation [for] our clients.”
Addison, who had worked in the agency’s city and county offices for about 20 years until Friday, said DeWolfe hadn’t given him much of an explanation either.
“It was very brief,” Addison said of his 10 a.m. meeting with DeWolfe and Baltimore City Public Defender Elizabeth L. Julian. “It was just that Paul DeWolfe was unhappy with the culture of the juvenile court division here in the city and in order to change the culture he felt that he needed to remove the supervisors, which is what he’s done.”
“That’s really the only description we got,” said Addison.
Triplin could not be reached for comment. Fishkin declined to comment and the other three supervisors did not return calls for comment.
Members of the recently reconstituted OPD board of trustees reached Friday said they were not consulted or told about the personnel decisions and deferred to DeWolfe or the board chairman, T. Wray McCurdy, who did not return calls for comment.
“We were not consulted or involved in it — and we shouldn’t be,” said Baltimore criminal defense attorney and board member Margaret A. Mead. “Those are personnel decisions that … the public defender should make in the best interest of the agency.”
In July 2009, the then-three-member board wrote Forster a letter requesting she disband certain units, such as the Juvenile Defender Division, fire Triplin and make other cost-cutting changes. When Forster refused, McCurdy and Mead voted to remove her, with the third board member, Theresa L. Moore, who is no longer on the board, dissenting.
Forster’s firing prompted the General Assembly to revamp the board as of June, expanding the board to 13 members — most of whom were appointed this year — and allowing for the state’s public defender only to be removed for cause.
Triplin was not the only one fired who had previously been on the chopping block. Addison’s firing, which came with as little notice as it did explanation, was in those respects similar to what happened on another sunny Friday two summers ago. He called it “déjà vu all over again.”
On the morning of Aug. 21, 2009, he received a call from Forster, who was herself about to be fired, and learned that she was not pleased with his performance and that he had to be out of his office by that Monday. (He was almost immediately reinstated by Julian, who led the state agency on an interim basis until DeWolfe was hired in December 2009.)
But it was different this go-round. Addison said his request for a reassignment was denied and he expects no special dispensation this time.
“At least in August ’09, I had a sense that I was not in the good graces of Nancy Forster, and while I certainly wasn’t expecting to get fired … it wasn’t that unexpected,” he said. “In this case, I thought I had a good relationship with Paul, and evidently not, or otherwise it was motivated by something other than the relationship we had.”
Addison acknowledged “the juvenile division has been under scrutiny for a while,” including during Forster’s tenure. (Forster, now a private appellate attorney, declined to comment on the firings.)
The agency’s statewide Juvenile Protection Division had also been monitoring Addison’s division, and Addison figures its reports back to DeWolfe about the city office’s “culture” must not have been flattering. He described the relationship between his division and JPD as “hostile.”
“We just sort of felt like it was an unfair situation,” he said, alleging the JPD staff had “no clear protocol” and were “very judgmental without being objective.”
Though Addison downplayed the criticism of public defenders like him in an October report from the Just Kids Partnership, others said the findings of that study might also have been in DeWolfe’s mind.
After spending the afternoon in court handling a couple of last cases and receiving well wishes from courthouse colleagues, Addison was packing up his office, at one point lending a cart to Schwartz, as he spoke about the end of an era. The 56-year-old lawyer said he’s too young to retire.
“I’m still an attorney,” Addison said. “I may not still be an assistant public defender but I’m still admitted to the bar and I will get another job doing something else.”