State’s Public Defender says Christie’s bullying tactics violated the law

In a scathing letter to Gov. Chris Christie sent Monday, state Public Defender Yvonne Smith Segars accuses the governor of “bullying tactics” and of orchestrating a coordinated effort to force her to resign.

The two-page letter outlines what Segars calls “violations of the law” that include attempts to force her resignation, blocking of hiring and promotions within the Public Defender’s Office and an order to direct any public inquiries made to the office to the governor’s press staff.

“Because I have insisted on a lawful transition and resisted your illegal conduct, I have been summoned to your office, suffered veiled threats, been pressured to resign, have had interference with my agency’s operations and now fear being physically removed from my office,” the letter from Segars says.

Through a spokesman, Segars declined to comment on the letter but confirmed its authenticity.

Nancy Erika Smith, an attorney representing Segars, said Christie has far overstepped his bounds by interfering with the Public Defender.

“The governor is overreaching and violating the law by trying to control the public defender’s office,” Smith said. “Since he became governor he has attacked the independence of the judiciary and now he is attacking the independence of the public defender.”

Smith said state law is very clear. Segars serves until her successor is nominated and confirmed by the Senate.

“We have no issue with the nomination, but he has no right to force her out,” said Smith, who is a member of the state’s Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards.  Smith said no lawsuit has yet been filed but she is prepared to represent the public defender should it be necessary.

Last week, Christie nominated Assistant Deputy Public Defender Joseph Krakora, of Scotch Plains to succeed Segars.

In an email, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said “Segars’ accusations are not based in reality and exaggerate even the most routine interactions between her and staff in the Governor’s Office.”

“Ms. Segars has held the position since 2002, as an appointee of Governor McGreevey.  The fact of the matter is that hers is a gubernatorial appointment, and she has been in a holdover position for an unusually long time,” Drewniak said. “Governor Christie would like to make a change and has nominated Joseph Krakora, a highly-qualified career public defender from Union County, to be the new public defender.  We thank Ms. Segars for her service, but new leadership and new ideas are beneficial and necessary for any institution, including the Public Defender’s Office.”

Segars has been the Public Defender since her appointment by Gov. Jim McGreevey in 2002, overseeing  1,000 employees, including over 500 staff attorneys and the services of over 500 outside counsel.

In 2008,  the state agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging that Segars improperly fired a deputy based on her political affiliation, just weeks before Gov. Jon S. Corzine announced plans to nominate her to be a Superior Court judge.

The state agreed to pay $250,000 to Christine Leone-Zwillinger, a former deputy public defender, who was a supervisor in a unit that represented children who were abused.  

A month after Segars took office, Zwillinger was fired. 

The judgeship was scuttled when Republican state Sen. Gerald Cardinale blocked her nomination based on Zwillinger’s court case.

 Segars’ letter was first reported on http://www.bradblog.com

State’s Public Defender says Christie’s bullying tactics violated the law