More scrutiny sought for public defenders

COVINGTON - Newton County could soon implement a new program that will allow for more scrutiny of applicants for a public defender's services.

County commissioners approved Tuesday night an application to recoup funds from the state in exchange for setting up the program.

A law passed by the Georgia Legislature in 2008 offers counties an incentive to implement a more stringent evaluation process by allowing them to recoup 50 percent of application and other fees.

Currently, applications are filled out during the booking process at the Newton County Detention Center and attested by detention center staff. Forms are turned over to the Public Defender's Office for review and are either accepted or rejected based on qualifying criteria under Federal Poverty Guidelines.

But even though defendants are under oath when they fill out the form, there's no guarantee they're telling the truth, according to public defender Anthony Carter.

Under the new verification system, if there are questions about eligibility, the Newton County Law Librarian would be authorized to do additional research, including calling the Tax Assessor's Office to verify ownership of property; obtaining copies of pay stubs to verify income and copies of federal tax returns; calling the appropriate child support recovery agency to verify current child support being paid; obtaining copies of separation notices or dismissal letters from employers; calling the probation or parole office to verify current fines; calling utility companies to obtain service history; calling the current employer to verify employment; and utilizing a computer program to collect and analyze financial data.

"Someone in my office could come up to me and say, 'We're representing this client, but he just drove up in a brand new Escalade. We need to utilize this new process,'" Carter said.

If its application is approved when the Georgia Public Defender's Standards Council meets in November, the county will implement a six-month trial program, he said.

The law librarian's hours and salary will be adjusted based on additional time and research required, he said. Carter estimated the law librarian will work an additional 10 hours annually.

Fifty percent of application and associated fees will go back to the county rather than to the state treasury, he said, noting that the hope is that the program will break even or perhaps generate additional revenue for the county's general fund.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson questioned whether the information obtained would be public. Henderson said much of the information is personal and should be kept confidential.

Henderson was recently arrested on a charge of battery and is a client of the Public Defender's Office. Carter is his attorney.

Initially, Carter said the information would fall under attorney-client privilege and would likely be kept private, but upon further questioning, he said he would need to think about that more.

Carter said the question caught him off guard. He emphasized that he has been working to get the verification program implemented in Newton County for a year, and said it has nothing to do with Henderson's arrest.

"The timing is unfortunate because the two are not related," he said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.