Clark County Commission approves new public defender after contentious selection process

Nevada News

The Clark County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to greenlight the appointment of new county public defender Darin Imlay amid criticism that the selection process lacked transparency and ignored an advisory panel’s recommendations.

Imlay, a 22-year veteran in the public defender’s office, will replace outgoing chief Phil Kohn. Kohn, who has helmed the office since 2004, announced plans to retire in August in the wake of a probe into wide-ranging sexual harassment allegations against him.

The vote came toward the end of a marathon commission meeting that saw nearly two-dozen people speak during a public comment period on the appointment. Among them were a number of attorneys within the public defender’s office who spoke passionately of Imlay’s qualifications and ability to manage a department with well-documented problems.

“Imlay is an outstanding choice,” public defender Howard Brooks told the commission. “He knows how to manage people, and he will be a wonderful public defender.”

But in equal numbers came community activists urging the commission to delay its vote in order to allow for a more thorough candidate search than the one that was ultimately conducted, a process some critics in the room called “broken.”

Las Vegas defense attorney Robert Langford, who lost a bid for Clark County District Attorney in June, told the commission that in two months of objecting to the appointment process, Tuesday’s meeting was the first opportunity he had to speak about it in a public forum.

“Process is everything, and this process was fatally flawed from the beginning,” he said.

Nevada law dictates that Clark County’s public defenders be appointed by the county manager and then ratified by the county commission. In the case of this latest appointment, County Manager Yolanda King brought together a panel of five prominent lawyers —  state Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry, retired Federal Public Defender Franny Forsman, Director of the Office of Appointed Counsel Drew Christensen, First Assistant Federal Public Defender Lori Teicher and Clark County Special Public Defender JoNell Thomas — to interview eight pre-qualified applicants and provide King with recommendations.

After the committee forwarded her four names for consideration, King conducted town hall meetings with the 120-person team at the public defender’s office to come to a final consensus: appointing Imlay, subject to ratification.

But at least one member of the panel said their recommendations and the opinion of the panel’s majority were sidelined in favor of those town halls.

“With an office that was called by a number of people ‘broken,’ doing a popularity poll with the office is just not the way to do it,” Forsman said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “Obviously they brought in experts with decades of experience in indigent defense, and they did admit that only three people were voted to even go forward. What they didn’t tell you was what the consensus of the committee was. And what the consensus of the committee was, was not this applicant.”

As commissioners questioned both King and the county’s human resources department, which handled the administrative end of the search, they commented in turn that they thought the process could be improved next time around. Commissioners Lawrence Weekly and Chris Giunchigliani, in particular, called for Imlay to address lingering issues of racism within the criminal justice system and suggested changes that would allow and encourage out-of-state applicants in the future.

But even with those concerns, the commission was ultimately assuaged by the explanation of King and her staff, and a loud cheer arose from the public defenders in the room when the six commissioners ultimately voted “yes” for Imlay.

Commission Chair and governor-elect Steve Sisolak abstained from the vote, as one of his daughters is a public defender.

The public defender’s office in Clark County has long been plagued by scandal and mismanagement at the top. Founded in 1966, the office’s first public defender was Richard Bryan, who would go on to become governor and ultimately a U.S. senator for Nevada.

In 2001, troubles in the office started to mount. Office head Morgan Harris stepped down early from his post of 29 years after an internal audit found employees were running personal errands while still on the clock, and that Harris owned a vending machine and had it placed illegally inside the office.

And in 2018, an investigation — first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal — found some employees within the office believed his eventual successor, Kohn, had come to cultivate a workplace dominated by favoritism and sexual harassment, all protected by a friendly relationship with a supervising assistant county manager. Though, while all the interviewed employees admitted he had at least acted inappropriately from time to time, they also countered that Kohn was a “good boss who has done good things for the office.”

Imlay, 52, received his law degree from the University of Denver before being admitted to the Nevada bar in 1996. He is set to take over the office next month.

UPDATED on 12/4/18 at 10 A.M.: This article was updated to more accurately reflect the outcome of the investigation into retiring Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn. 

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