David Duke left as deputy director of the Billings Regional Public Defender’s office in March after criticisms of bad management and failure to address internal strife among staff, according to a document recently released after a request for public records filed jointly by The Billings Gazette and KTVQ.

Duke was appointed Billings regional deputy in 2008. He failed to correct problems in his managerial approach after repeated direction to do so, Chief Public Defender William Hooks wrote in a March 17, 2016, letter to Duke.

The letter also raised concerns that Duke had an inappropriate romantic relationship with another attorney in the office.

“Your actions, or lack thereof, have impeded the necessary level of representation to which our clients are entitled,” Hooks wrote.

Duke left the day after he received the letter. The office has been without a permanent supervisor since.

Five issues are listed in the letter:

  • The office was not assigning cases to public defenders in a timely manner, Hooks said. When the court appoints the defender's office to represent a client, the regional office should assign an attorney immediately, according to OPD policy. That attorney is required to contact their client within three business days.
  • Duke favored certain attorneys over others and took sides in workplace disputes, Hooks said, creating divisions and tensions in the office. Hooks said he had mentioned this to Duke before, and Duke did not change his approach.
  • Duke also had a romantic relationship with a subordinate attorney in his office, the letter stated. This showed an “extreme” lack of judgment on Duke’s part, Hooks said.
  • An attorney in Duke’s office was maintaining a private practice on the side. Duke told Hooks he had told the attorney not to take calls from potential private clients during work hours. Duke also assured Hooks the attorney had not taken on any private criminal cases. The attorney in question continued to get calls from potential clients at the office during work hours and took on criminal clients, the letter states. This matter was brought to Duke’s attention, and he did not correct the problem, Hooks said.
  • It became a practice in Duke's office to refer difficult clients to the Office of the Public Defender conflict office, which was against OPD protocol. Hooks told Duke to stop the practice, but difficult clients continued to be assigned to the conflict office.

“In short, I have lost confidence in your ability to manage the Billings office and execute your duties as Regional Deputy,” Hooks wrote Duke.

The Office of the State Public Defender is a tax-funded service that provides attorneys through programs like public defenders, the appellate defender and the conflict coordinator. The public defender program provides an attorney for people who need it either for a criminal defense, a custody case involving abuse or neglect, or for cases involving involuntary commitment. The Billings office handles Yellowstone, Big Horn, Carbon and Stillwater counties. 

In the eight months since Duke left, Douglas Day, deputy for the regional defender office in Lewistown, has also overseen the Billings office

A search for a permanent replacement began in October. Hooks has met with one applicant so far and was in the process of setting up additional meetings in Billings for December.

“I don’t have a firm deadline, but I would like to get this wrapped up sooner rather than later,” Hooks said.

Duke declined to comment. He now works as a contract attorney in the public defender’s conflict office.

Last February, the Task Force on State Public Defender Operations sent a survey to OPD employees, prosecutors and other “stakeholders” in the public defender system. About a third of the respondents cited the need for better management, supervision and training on all levels of the office of the public defender.

The task force was created by the 2015 Legislature to create an organizational plan for the Office of the State Public Defender.

During the 2015 session, the Legislature approved the agency's budget as "one-time only." State agencies typically build off the previous year's budget. Instead, during the 2017 Legislature, the OPD will have to justify the budget from the ground up.

New chief administrator for the office, Scott Cruse, issued a letter of resignation to Public Defender Commission Chair Richard "Fritz" Gillespie on Nov. 16. Within a week of receiving Cruse's resignation, Gillespie also resigned.

During a Public Defender Commission meeting on Nov. 30, the commissioners discussed the possibility of hiring someone to represent them in the coming session.

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