County Likely To Conduct National Search For Next Top Public Defender

May 8, 2019

Pittsburgh community advocates want Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to conduct a national candidate search for the county’s next top public defender -- and Fitzgerald says he probably will.

Elliot Howsie, the current chief public defender for the county, was confirmed to a judicial post on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on Tuesday.

“Whenever you have an opening in any position ... don’t you want to go out and try to find the best possible person?” said Vic Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “That person may not be in your backyard, that person may not be somebody you know, it may not be somebody who’s on your radar at all. That’s why you open up the process.”

Fitzgerald largely agreed with that assessment in an interview late Wednesday afternoon: "We're probably going to do a national search. I think it's a good idea." He said he'd conducted such searches for leadership at some of the county's largest agencies, including the Port Authority and the Airport Authority.

When Karen Hacker was hired to lead the county's Board of Health, for example, he said, "I didn't know her, didn't know anything about her until we went through that national search process. It is something that I think we've been fairly successful in doing over the years, and I think it probably makes some sense."

letter that Walczak co-signed along with fifty other organizations cited a criminal justice progress report from the University of Pittsburgh that assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the public defender’s office. The report recognizes the department’s progress, like providing counsel to some defendants during preliminary arraignments. But it also points to areas that it says require significant improvement, such as reducing the length of probation terms and cutting down on the use of monetary bail.

“These are really important problems that having a top-notch, experienced public defender, able to work with the courts, the DA’s office, the county, the jail, would be super-helpful to the bigger objective of criminal justice reform,” Walczak said.

Fitzgerald appointed Howsie as chief public defender in 2012. He did not conduct a national search for the position, though Walczak said there was third-party funding available to cover the cost of a search process.

“Maybe Mr. Howsie was the best person," Walczak said, "but I think the taxpayers and citizens of Allegheny County deserve the county taking the time to do a robust search.”

Fitzgerald said that while the county interviewed several candidates for the chief defender job in 2012, "We really didn't have that kind of luxury of time" needed for a national search. The office was vacant, and "We really had to move fairly quickly."

This time around, Howsie's top deputy, Matthew Dugan, is expected to serve as interim chief defender.  

The letter submitted to Fitzgerald urged him to invest in the process this time, suggesting that cost be covered using some of the unspent portion of the public defender's budget. Under Howsie, the office consistently ran under budget, which prompted criticism that it could have deployed additional resources on behalf of clients.

“Whether the County uses monies that were budgeted but underspent by the Public Defender’s Office over the past few years or secures grant funding ... we urge you to hire a search firm to help recruit and identify the best possible candidates,” the letter said.

Howsie has maintained that no request for resources was denied during his tenure, and on Tuesday Fitzgerald lauded his track record as public defender.

"He's done a great job in reforming that office," Fitzgerald said. "He's left big shoes to fill."

He said the county had not determined how it would be for the cost of the search, but added, "We want to make sure we get the right person in that job."