Commission Overseeing State Criminal Defense Agency Tries to Oust Director and Fails

After more than four hours, the motion was one vote shy.

The state commission in charge of Oregon’s system of public defenders held an emergency meeting Wednesday morning to decide whether to fire the agency’s director.

After four hours, it didn’t. The motion was one vote shy.

During the contentious meeting, the commission’s chair, Per Ramfjord, accused the director, Steve Singer, of unprofessional conduct toward the state’s chief judge.

That judge, Martha L. Walters, appeared at the meeting to condemn Singer. She called his behavior “bullying.”

“I have never seen one lawyer act so unprofessionally toward another lawyer in my career, much less a judge,” Ramfjord said.

The Office of Public Defense Services, which funds public defenders statewide, has been understaffed and under siege. Criminal defendants across the state lack counsel, and the state is being sued because of it.

Last year, the agency brought in Steve Singer, a well-regarded reformer with a Harvard law degree who was instrumental in the rebuilding of the New Orleans public defense system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In some circles, he is considered a hero.

But Singer is also cantankerous and, according to members of the commission, has a temper. In the past, he has used this volatility strategically. A Louisiana judge once ordered him removed from a courtroom in handcuffs. He has been jailed.

Prior to this morning’s meeting, which had been announced only days earlier, Ramfjord distributed a “confidential complaint” to the other members of the board, detailing the reasons Ramfjord believed Singer should be fired. WW obtained that complaint.

In it, Ramfjord transcribes lengthy text conversations between himself and Singer. In them, Singer takes a combative tone and appeals to Ramfjord for his support in disagreements over policy.

One text, allegedly from Singer, reads: “Changing a system like this is more than budgets & numbers & delivery systems. Sure it’s all that & I believe I’ve demonstrated that I can do that. But it’s also got to be a culture change. And that’s hard.”

In another, Singer allegedly writes that Judge Walters belittled him and “literally yelled at me for 35 straight minutes.”

Singer allegedly accuses both Judge Walters and state court administrator Nancy Cozine of lying about the circumstances under which the agency would receive an additional $12.8 million in funding.

“It’s just been papered over by ‘the Oregon way’ where everyone is nice on the front & messing around behind your back,” he allegedly wrote.

At the meeting, Singer defended himself and expressed outrage that the texts had been shared.

“Those were supposed to be confidential,” he said.

Singer blamed a “civil war” and dysfunction within the agency as reasons he had become heated, and he offered promises to improve.

“I need to be less dogmatic,” he said. “I can see things in black and white instead of gray.”

The commission could not find the votes to terminate, or even reprimand, him. Several members of the commission came to Singer’s defense, including Tom Christ, who noted that criminal defense lawyers liked him and that he’d had some successes in his short stint helming the agency.

A spokesperson for the Office of Public Defense Services said the agency had no additional comment.