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Hillsborough Public Defender

The challenger points to allegations of ethical wrongdoing, while the incumbent says her office has represented its clients well and cut costs.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


The race to serve the county's indigent defendants pits incumbent Public Defender Julianne Holt against Republican challenger Alan Sandler.

The race has been overshadowed at the courthouse by the suicide of State Attorney Harry Lee Coe and the resulting investigations. Without a primary, the race also missed out on exposure.

Sandler has had trouble raising the money needed to run a countywide race, with Holt garnering about $9 for every $1 Sandler has in his coffers.

Holt, 46, knocked off longtime public defender Judge C. Luckey in 1992 and easily won re-election in 1996, despite facing allegations she violated state ethics laws and a criminal investigation into her handling of office resources. She was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but a grand jury rebuked her management decisions.

This time around, Holt again finds herself under scrutiny for her management practices. Several former employees have filed complaints with the state ethics commission outlining myriad problems, including having employees perform personal work for her on state time.

Holt has called some of the former employees liars and calls all of them disgruntled. Holt takes pride in what she has accomplished during her tenure, including saving the office money by cutting away the fat left by Luckey and embracing time-saving technology.

The office has also performed well in several recent high-profile cases including a defense of Valessa Robinson, the Carrollwood girl accused of killing her mother, that resulted in a third-degree murder conviction. She had faced a first-degree murder charge and the accompanying life sentence.

"We have been doing a good job representing our clients," Holt said. "I can provide the leadership and experience to make sure that continues."

Sandler, 39, worked for Luckey in the early 1990s and stayed during Holt's first two years in office. He worked as a litigation specialist and lead trial attorney. He now works as a private lawyer in a general law practice.

Sandler thinks the Public Defender's Office needs some airing out and a more open approach. The scandals during Holt's tenure do not send a positive message to the taxpayers who foot the bill, he said.

If elected, Sandler said, he would make sure the office is run on a "higher ethical plane."

"What can all those accusations say about Holt's administrative style?" Sandler asked. "I think it raises serious questions of integrity and honesty."

THE JOB

The public defender is responsible for representing people charged with crimes who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys. The public defender in Hillsborough oversees a yearly budget of about $9-million and a staff of 175, including about 70 lawyers. The term is four years and the pay is $125,351 annually.

REPUBLICAN

ALAN SANDLER, 39, was born in Miami, graduated from Chamberlain High School in Tampa and went on to receive a bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida and law degree from St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami. He worked as an assistant public defender from 1992 to 1995 before moving into private practice. He is a member of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the criminal law division of the Florida Bar. He coaches children's soccer at the YMCA. He is married and has two daughters. ASSETS: home, mutual fund, bank accounts. LIABILITIES: mortgage, student loan. SOURCE OF INCOME: law firm.

DEMOCRAT

JULIANNE HOLT, 46, was born in Tampa and graduated from the University of South Florida in 1977 before receiving her law degree from the South Texas College of Law in 1980. Soon after, she opened her own general law practice and had several high-profile criminal defense cases before successfully running for public defender in 1992. She has volunteered at the PACE Center for Girls, the Anti-Drug Alliance and DUI Counterattack. She was the Girl Scouts' Woman of Distinction in 1997 and won a Hispanic Women in Government Award in 1994. She is divorced and has two children. ASSETS: home, boat, property, time share units. LIABILITIES: mortgage, loans, credit cards. SOURCE OF INCOME: salary, rental property.

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