A litigation threat didn’t stop Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton from terminating acting Chief Public Defender Al Flora.
Lawton sent council an email Wednesday afternoon saying Flora has been “relieved of his duties” as acting chief, effective immediately. Flora officially will be off the payroll at the close of business April 29, Lawton said.
Lawton and County Council hired someone else to run the office last week, but officials left the impression Flora might stay put in a non-supervisory assistant public defender position and keep his $52,178 salary.
Flora’s employment status is an issue because he had filed a federal court action seeking an injunction prohibiting the county from firing him for filing a still-pending county suit seeking additional staffing. Flora halted that action last April after county officials agreed they would not seek to fire him.
The agreement reached between the parties acknowledged Flora would be acting chief public defender pending Lawton’s decision on who to appoint to the position permanently. The stipulation also said Flora was not in “imminent danger of termination” and would not be subjected to any retaliatory “adverse employment action.”
Lawton declined comment on Flora’s termination.
First Assistant Public Defender Demetrius Fannick will oversee the office until Kingston attorney Steven Greenwald takes over as chief public defender later this month, Lawton told council. Greenwald will be paid $90,000 annually and cannot have an outside legal practice.
Flora expressed surprise when he was informed of the email about his termination around 5 p.m. Wednesday.
“Nobody said anything about this to me,” he said.
Flora, who had applied for the chief public defender position, said he has been working in the public defender’s office as usual since council voted last week to confirm Lawton’s appointment of Greenwald. Nobody offered him another position in the office, he said.
“All I know is what I read in the paper,”he said.
Flora’s litigation over office staffing, which argues more employees are need to properly represent the indigent, has been scheduled for trial June 24. A county judge will decide if additional employees are warranted.
The office has a $2.7 million budget this year, compared to $2.5 million in 2012. The budget provides funding for 40 positions, including 24 full- and part-time assistant public defenders.
The office defends low-income clients who request representation for misdemeanor or felony charges. It also handles juvenile and state parole cases and represents people facing involuntary commitment to mental-health facilities and criminal contempt in protection-from-abuse cases, he said.
Prior commissioners hired Flora in 2010 to replace Basil Russin, who resigned after three decades running the office.