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Holt's savings claims disputed

The candidate says Public Defender Julianne Holt has cost taxpayers plenty with poor decisions and lavish spending on technology.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


TAMPA -- In the race for Hillsborough public defender, the candidates are talking a lot about money.

Or more specifically, saving money.

Democratic incumbent Julianne Holt has used a sizable chunk of her six-figure campaign war chest to spread the word that she has saved taxpayers millions in her eight years on the job. She has limited the use of private attorneys and modernized the office, she says.

But her Republican opponent, Alan Sandler, sees the savings as more of a budgetary shell game -- highlighting savings in one place despite lavish spending and poor management in others. Holt's high staff turnover rate, combined with several dubious purchases of expensive equipment, have cost taxpayers plenty, he said.

"I'm sure she has saved money here and there, but it's misleading to say she has saved money overall," said Sandler, 39.

Holt, 46, did not return phone calls seeking comment. This summer, the St. Petersburg Times wrote a series of stories outlining, among other things, former employees' concerns that Holt often used state resources for personal and political gain. Those stories have sparked investigations by the state Ethics Commission and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

With the election four days away, the public defender race remains particularly quiet. Both candidates hit the speaking circuit and debated on local cable TV. But the campaign has been overshadowed by courthouse scandals, including several ethics investigations of judges and State Attorney Harry Lee Coe's suicide in July.

Holt, with more than $120,000 in campaign contributions, has out-raised Sandler almost 9 to 1 (including $7,000 of his own). She's used much of that money to buy billboard space and newspaper ads that tout saving taxpayers $2.5-million during her tenure.

The savings come from a decreased reliance on attorneys appointed when Holt's staff cannot represent a client because of a conflict. In such cases -- two defendants charged in the same case, for example -- a private attorney is appointed.

Holt has said that before she took over in 1993 assistant public defenders handed cases to private attorneys much too often.

In the last year under her predecessor, Public Defender Judge C. Luckey, taxpayers shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to conflict attorneys. Holt, who defeated Luckey, quickly cut that amount down. The total savings equal $2.5-million, Holt says.

Sandler, who worked for Luckey and Holt in the early 1990s before entering private practice, doesn't dispute Holt's numbers, though he said she often skimps on the specifics of each year's savings. But Sandler believes Holt's poor decisions in other areas have eroded any savings.

He offers as an example the turnover rate; during Holt's tenure, he said, more than 500 employees have come and gone. In an office of about 175 employees, including 70 lawyers, that's a "huge amount," Sandler said.

On the campaign trial, Holt has not disputed Sandler's numbers except to say that about 135 of those employees were hired on a temporary basis and were expected to leave. She also has said she cannot compete with salaries offered in the private sector during such a robust economy.

Some turnover is a reality of any public defender's officer, Sandler said, but Holt pays some of the highest salaries in the state. Sandler said he also found that Holt diverted $632,000 from the budget for salaries in the past two years to buy computers and other equipment.

Holt should have used that money to raise salaries or hire more staff to limit the workload, he said. That would have cut down on turnover and saved thousands in training costs, he said.

Sandler said it's another example of what he calls Holt's "problematic and misguided" management style. The office is wound tight, with many employees walking on egg shells, he said. Some don't know where they stand and have no sense of job security, he said.

Eventually that affects their main goal, the rigorous defense of indigent clients, Sandler said. He pointed to the recent $17,000 malpractice lawsuit a Marion County man won after unnecessarily spending two weeks in jail because of a breakdown at the public defender's office.

Sandler promised to bring more stability to the office and much more openness.

"Just because the people that work for you do so at your will does not mean that you have to constantly impose your will," he said.

Sandler also has a lot of questions about equipment Holt has bought and then let go in the past few years. He pointed to a video conferencing system that was bought, updated several times but never really used. The total cost was well over $1-million, he said, and was eventually given to local law enforcement agencies.

By Sandler's estimate, Holt has given away about $2-million worth of office equipment. Some of the items were old and needed to go. But others weren't that old, he said, like dozens of computers given away after less than a year. Much of the equipment ended up at local schools or other organizations that Holt supports, like the PACE Center for Girls.

"It's not a savings when you get rid of stuff that you never really needed to begin with," Sandler said. "That's simply a waste."

Sandler also said he would have a strict nepotism policy, a distinct difference from Holt, and something he says would boost morale and could save money.

Earlier this year, Holt had to fire several members of one family after problems arose with one of them. A couple of others chose to resign. Holt continues to employ several groups of family members.

Sandler said such a policy can leave the impression that a family in Holt's favor is receiving preferential treatment. On top of that, if the boss has problems with one of the family members, it can mean they all have to go. Such a setup is "extremely unhealthy" and hurts morale, he said.

"It also affects efficiency and increases training costs," he said. "That ends up costing money."

- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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