Impropriety forces removal of longtime public defender

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Former Shelby County Public Defender Bob Williams has been removed from a position of management in that office and has repaid funds he reportedly paid to himself above and beyond his salary.

Former District Attorney William &8220;Billy&8221; Hill has been named acting Public Defender and will become full-time on Monday, Feb. 27.

County Commission chairman and attorney Lindsey Allison, who is serving as acting chairman of the Shelby County Indigent Defense Commission, confirmed the action this week.

According to Allison, after a 14-month review of financial records and debt from the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, it was reported that there may have been some funds paid to employees that &8220;were not approved&8221; by the full commission over and above salary.

While Allison said there was no criminal liability, there could have been civil liability, she said.

She said the matter was referred to the Shelby County District Attorney&8217;s Office.

And in conjunction with the DA&8217;s office, the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts and the Indigent Defense Commission, it was recommended that Williams repay the money he had paid to himself and be removed from a position of management.

According to Allison, five other employees over a period of three years, 2001-2004, received the balance of $27,236.44 and Williams received $22,350.01.

She said two of the former employees no longer work in the public defenders office.

Allison said there was no punishment for those employees because they paid taxes and did not benefit without liability. She also said they were not in a position to know that they should not have received the extra pay.

As to Williams, Allison stressed, he has been in the position of Public Defender for 18 years and the Indigent Defense Commission could not discount that.

Allison stressed that Williams had been a competent and steady attorney on behalf of the indigent. She said his qualifications as a public defender were never an issue.

Allison said Williams accepted the conditions and repaid the money. She also said Hill accepted the position of public defender.

She said as a result of the hire of Hill, Williams pay will be cut. She said Hill&8217;s salary will come from the annual budget and some adjustments in the funds will be made.

Assistant District Attorney Bill Bostick said the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts referred the improper payment of funds (in the public Defender&8217;s Office) to the DA&8217;s office for collection.

He said the DA&8217;s office worked with the Indigent Defense Commission to resolve the matter and get the funds repaid by Williams without affecting the function of the office.

&8220;I think the commission has done an excellent job of that,&8221; Bostick said. He also noted that he thought it was critical that indigent services not be interrupted in the process.

Despite Williams&8217; action in paying himself without approval, Bostick expressed his support for the longtime public defender.

He said he had been an opponent of Williams in the courtroom for many years and that (Williams) had always been an honor and credit to the office.

&8220;This has been a shame, but the commission had no choice but to take action and I feel that Mr. Hill will do an excellent job.&8221;

Williams could not be reached for comment as he did not return repeated calls.

The Indigent Defense Commission serves at the pleasure of Presiding Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Joiner.

Other members include Property Tax Commissioner Don Armstrong, who was the Shelby County Commission&8217;s appointment;

lawyer and Shelby County Commissioner Allison; Columbiana Mayor Allan Lowe; and at-large member, the Rev. Clarence Carter.

Laywer Hewitt &8220;Sonny&8221; Conwill was a member of the Indigent Defense Commission until he became a Shelby County Circuit Judge. His position on that commission is now vacant