Former boss challenged: Defense attorney William Knight, a Republican, is challenging three-term Democratic incumbent Julianne Holt, for whom he used to work.
Defense attorney William Knight, a Republican, is challenging three-term Democratic incumbent Julianne Holt for the job of Hillsborough public defender.
Holt won election as Hillsborough's public defender in 1992, beating longtime public defender Judge C. Luckey. Since her first term, Holt has been dogged by ethics allegations, but she has repeatedly escaped largely unscathed. Voters returned her to office in 1996 and again in 2000.
Holt, 50, a graduate of the South Texas College of Law, says her leadership of the office saves taxpayers more than $1-million a year. Her efforts include an early-diversion program that steers clients away from jail and into less expensive programs, finding clients jobs and educational opportunities, and negotiating to pay experts less than their standard rates.
She also has curtailed the office's prior habit of steering clients to more expensive, taxpayer-funded "conflict attorneys" when it appears the Public Defender may have a conflict representing the clients. "All that translates into saved money," Holt said.
Her challenger, 36-year-old defense attorney William Knight, is a member of the Gasparilla Krewe, a former football player at Columbia University, and the great-grandson of Peter O. Knight, the Tampa Electric founder after whom the local airport is named.
Knight started work as an assistant public defender in Tampa a year after graduating Stetson Law in 1993, and remained there until 1998. That year, he won acquittals for defendants on charges of vehicular homicide and murder.
Knight now works in private practice. He was a longtime Democrat until he decided to run against the Democrat Holt, at which point he became a Republican. Knight defends the switch by saying the presence of candidates from two parties gives more people a chance to vote for the office.
Knight argues that too many talented lawyers are leaving the office, citing statistics showing it has a higher turnover rate than its counterparts in Duval, Pasco-Pinellas, Miami-Dade and Broward counties. He says this costs taxpayers and slows the system down with constant retraining. "They've lost good attorneys who have gone to other state agencies who wouldn't have left if they thought they were being treated fairly," he said.
Holt says high turnover is a statewide problem, the result of salaries that can't compete with the private sector, and therefore beyond her control.
"When you're single-focused on an issue, that means you haven't really taken a look at the administrative complexities of this office," Holt said.
The Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office is responsible for representing people charged with crimes who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys. The public defender oversees a yearly budget of about $10-million and a staff of 200 people, including about 85 lawyers. The job pays $135,000 annually.
JULIANNE HOLT, 50, was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up in Tampa. She graduated from South Texas College of Law in 1980 before opening a general law practice. She had several high-profile criminal defense cases before successfully running for public defender, taking office in 1993. She is divorced with children. ASSETS: Home, boat, property, time share units, car. LIABILITIES: Loans. SOURCES OF INCOME: Salary, rental property, teaching.
WILLIAM KNIGHT, 36, was born and raised in Tampa. He received an undergraduate degree from Columbia University in New York in 1990, and a law degree from Stetson University in 1993. He worked as as Assistant Public Defender in Hillsborough from 1994 to 1998, and now runs a solo law practice specializing in criminal defense. He is married with no children. ASSETS: Stocks, savings, property, car, law practice. LIABILITIES: Mortgage. SOURCE OF INCOME: Law practice, stocks.