“I don’t know how much more transparent we can be,” Randy Harris said.
He said the report was confusing because the recommendations do not match what the grand jury said.
“(The jury) says I gave them everything we had,” Harris said. “I pulled it together for them and met with them.”
The report acknowledges the office has taken steps to save money by using contract attorneys and a rigorous system for determining if defendants qualify for the service, noting the denial rate for defendants has grown from 10.7 percent in 2007 to 30.6 percent in 2010.
Yet the report goes on to recommend the office be reviewed every six months and provide better records to the County Commission.
“These reports should include the annual payments to panel lawyers,” the report reads. “These records and reports should be part of the public record.”
But Harris said that, as a public office, all of its documents are on the record.
“Everything they’ve been given is part of the public record,” he said. “The budget numbers came through the county budget office.”
The recommendations also say the three-person advisory committee comprising Harris, local attorney Joel Pugh and Latona Thomas, who heads the county’s Internal Audit office, may be too small to effectively manage their responsibilities.
The committee meets once a month to assist Harris in filling open attorney positions and reviews all attorney bills more than $900, Harris said.
“They’re not running the office. Their responsibilities are limited,” he said, noting the grand jury did not interview Pugh or Thomas. “They’re very knowledgeable, and I think the committee is effective.”
Despite disagreeing with report, Harris said the office will continue to cooperate with future committees.
“We will look forward to another appearance in front of the grand jury, and we will clearly respond to each concern that they have,” he said. “I’m happy to do that. We’re a public office and we want to do a good job. We’re certainly not perfect, we want to do a better job. We’re always looking to improve.”
The circuit defender’s office handles defense of indigent defendants. The office has 20 “contract” attorneys, who are independent contractors paid a set fee to handle cases for a particular courtroom, regardless of the number of cases.
The office also has a list of more than 200 private attorneys who represent individual indigent defendants and bill the county by the hour for those cases. Those are known as “panel” attorneys.
Part-time contract lawyers handle basic counsel up to plea bargain arrangements incurring no jail time, but if a defendant goes to court, a panel lawyer takes over the case.
The grand jury report states this system provided “a fast and efficient legal service to the more minor cases, while providing more qualified lawyers to more major cases.”
An April grand jury report claimed the cost savings for using panel attorneys was overstated and that the office overspent its budget, among other concerns.
But Harris and Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron disputed the reports, saying the jurors had been provided with inaccurate information.
Cobb County opted out of the State Public Defenders system eight years ago and receives $500,000 from the state each year to help run the circuit defenders program. Harris’ office has a total annual budget of $5.2 million for this fiscal year.
The rest of the office’s income comes from the county.