With the tab for defending ex-Prosecutor John Bujak at $91,000 and growing fast, Canyon County commissioners are asking judges and other court leaders to take a hard look at who qualifies for defense on the public dime.
We have come to believe that the current system of determining eligibility for appointment of a public defender in Canyon County is inadequate and susceptible to abuse, the three commissioners said in a letter to the countys Criminal Justice Planning Council this week.
Bujak, who was recently ordered to start contributing $1,000 a month toward his defense, now says he wants to represent himself because he cant afford to help pay his two lawyers. Hes charged with illegally diverting $236,000 in prosecution contract payments to cover his personal bills and expenses in 2009 and 2010.
Paying for the defense of a man they believe stole from the county rankles Canyon leaders, who have contended in court documents that Bujak is not truly indigent. County efforts to revisit his eligibility for public defenders had a mixed result, with a judge ruling earlier this month that Bujak does qualify for a public defense but can afford to chip in toward that defense.
Commissioners Kathy Alder and David Ferdinand stressed Friday that their concerns are about the system as a whole, not the Bujak case. And they declined to discuss the Bujak prosecution, which is under a defense-requested gag order.
But the commissioners letter, dated July 23, refers to certain well-publicized criminal matters involving our former attorney and says the courts have repeatedly failed to conduct a meaningful indigency review in those matters.
We believe this failure has made a mockery of the right of the truly indigent to effective public defense and compromised the countys budget, commissioners said.
A JUDGE RESPONDS
Third District Administrative Judge Thomas Ryan answered the commissioners letter Friday, noting their statement about massive amounts of taxpayer dollars disappearing in the defense of those who can afford to defend themselves.
While I take issue with a number of your premises on this point, that is not the purpose of this letter, Ryan wrote. Instead, I urge you to take your concerns and any specific information you have regarding persons who have improperly received legal assistance at county expense to the Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney.
Idaho law authorizes county prosecutors to recover payment from anyone who is financially able to pay for legal services but receives public assistance instead, Ryan said.
Alder said the commissioners letter obtained by the Statesman was not intended for public release but to inspire discussion and coordinated effort. The issues are expected to come up at next weeks meeting of the Criminal Justice Planning Council, which includes Ryan, Judge Juneal Kerrick, Prosecutor Bryan Taylor, Public Defender Mark Mimura, County Clerk Chris Yamamoto, and representatives of court administration and law enforcement.
County commissioners want to make sure those who need a public defender get one, Alder said, but its just as important to ensure that those who get public defenders need them.
Commissioners suggest beefing up the required paperwork for those who apply for a public defender to make sure the need is genuine.
In most cases, they need one, Alder said. But we want to catch the cases where they dont.
Canyon Countys contract with Mimura provides more than $2 million a year to provide attorneys for all indigent defendants, but the county also has to pay for defense lawyers in various cases where there is a conflict. Many conflict cases involve multiple defendants who need separate attorneys, but Bujaks case was designated as conflict because of his prior position as the countys lead legal officer.
So far the county has paid $76,000 for Bujaks public defenders, plus more than $15,000 for computer data recovery on the defenses behalf. Additional payments of $13,621 for the lawyers and $17,872 for data recovery are scheduled for Aug. 10.
Information was not available Friday about how much overall the county has had to pay this year for these conflict public defenders. Thats one of the purposes of the commissioners letter, Prosecutor Taylor said: to determine how much the system costs the county and what can or should be done to adjust the system.
He said judges already have shown interest in the issues raised by conflict public defenders, and Judge Ryans letter said he and the other judges welcome the opportunity to discuss ways to make the system better.
Everyone realizes that its an issue that we have to address, but were not going to fix everything overnight, Taylor said.
Commissioners would like to explore the possibility of an in-house public defenders office, but that likely is at least a year or two away, Ferdinand said. .
Alder said the envisioned arrangement would likely save the county money, with in-house attorneys handling mostly misdemeanors, and more complicated cases and conflict cases handled under contract by a rotating slate of private attorneys.
But to hire even a small staff of defenders would require more space than the county has in the courthouse, so Alder said it likely must wait until the county builds its planned administrative building across the street from the courthouse, possibly in 2014.
WILL BUJAK DEFEND HIMSELF?
A hearing next Friday will determine whether Bujak will take over his own defense in the misuse of public funds case. That might be unlikely since Special Prosecutor Bill Thompson questions whether Bujaks attempt to waive his right to counsel is knowing, voluntary and intelligent, as required by law.
In a July 24 motion requesting a hearing, Thompson noted that Bujaks motion indicates he is seeking to represent himself only because a judge ordered him to contribute $1,000 a month toward his public defenders.
In his motion, Bujak says that he cant afford those payments and that his financial situation is exacerbated by two recent arrests on new felony charges.
Bujak, whose license to practice law is suspended, works under contract with a local attorney and said the arrests caused him to lose work time and income.
The state continues to stack charges and attack the defendants release status in an attempt to hold him in custody pending trial in order to gain a tactical advantage, Bujak contends in his motion.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447