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Hearing Over Tashun Bowden-Lewis’ Future Highlights Turmoil

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TaShun Bowden-Lewis and her attorney, Thomas W. Bucci, at a hearing over her future as chief public defender on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at the Legislative Office Building. Credit: Jaden Edison / CT Mirror
Bowden-Lewis could be disciplined or fired after the hearing into allegations of improper conduct
Jaden Edison / CT Mirror

Dozens of people attended a hearing on Tuesday over the fate of Connecticut’s first Black chief public defender, TaShun Bowden-Lewis, which ended without a resolution and raised concerns about the discord between the career attorney and the Division of Public Defender Services’ regulatory oversight body. The roughly four-hour hearing comes about two months after the Public Defender Services Commission placed Bowden-Lewis on paid administrative leave following recurring disputes between the two. Bowden-Lewis is also facing accusations of unethical and untruthful behavior, bullying people critical of her decisions and unfairly suggesting that people are racist for not falling in line with her vision, all of which resulted in a vote of no confidence from 121 unionized staff members earlier this year. 

The commission will rely on the preponderance of evidence standards to determine whether to discipline Bowden-Lewis, which could include her termination from office, and will announce its decision publicly. But state law requires that a public hearing happen before the commission can make a decision. “I’ve not been accused of embezzling funds, having intimate relations with employees or clients, or being arrested for breaking the law,” Bowden-Lewis said. “I did not see anything worthy of this commission removing me from this position and taking away my ability to provide for my family.”

The room was packed with division employees, who were mostly white, while many of Bowden-Lewis’ supporters, most of whom were Black, sat either directly behind her or opposite the agency’s staff. It grew tense as some commission members exhibited irritation, raised their voice or cut off Bowden-Lewis during their exchanges with her.

The meeting concluded with an agreement between the commission and Bowden-Lewis’ attorney, Thomas W. Bucci, that he be granted an opportunity to cross-examine people who have levied accusations against her if he chooses. Prior to that, retired state Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer, chair of the Public Defender Services Commission, verbally outlined 16 charges from a 26-page document that the panel is contemplating

Some of the claims were corroborated through an independent investigation by Shipman & Goodwin LLP, a law firm where Palmer worked during the late 1970s. The state recently tapped the firm to investigate whether state troopers intentionally falsified ticketing data. Bowden-Lewis noted that while the Shipman & Goodwin inquiry into allegations of mistreatment concluded that she had bullied or marginalized employees who she did not favor or who questioned her, it also determined that none of her conduct amounted to discrimination, harassment or an illegal hostile work environment under state law. 

She emphasized that members of a state agency should not expect privacy when it comes to their emails. She said she asserted her authority as the chief to oversee the email communications between her subordinates and others due to a lack of transparency from individuals like Sullivan, the legal counsel, regarding the division’s operations. The commission concluded that Bowden-Lewis had ordered a subordinate to improperly access emails that Palmer said were legally privileged.

Additionally, Bowden-Lewis expressed her desire for a fair chance to learn and grow on the job, similar to the opportunities given to her predecessors. But she argued that the commission, notably Palmer, has resisted opportunities for peace. “The Governor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office have spoken to Justice Palmer about agreeing to have a third-party conversation between he and I, but he declined,” Bowden-Lewis testified. “I’m ready and willing to talk and find a common ground.”

When discussing the allegations of Bowden-Lewis’ unfair treatment of Ryan and Campbell, Palmer appeared frustrated that she repeatedly referred to the investigation’s finding that there was no violation of state law in her conduct. “Are you saying that the report does not say that you created a hostile work environment for the purpose of forcing Attorney Ryan out of that job so that you could replace her with Miss Lohr?” Palmer asked, referencing the agency’s acting human resources director, Paula Lohr. “I read to you what the report says. That’s my answer,” Bowden-Lewis said. “Would you answer my questions? Palmer asked. “Is it yes or no?” “The report concluded that neither the conduct alleged by Miss Campbell nor Miss Ryan amounted to discrimination, harassment or an illegal hostile work environment. That’s my response to your question,” Bowden-Lewis responded. 

“Alright, you heard my question, right?” Palmer said. “I responded to your question,” Bowden-Lewis said. “No, you didn’t respond to my question, but I’m going to move on. ” Palmer responded, resulting in gasps from people observing the exchange. Similar exchanges occurred between Bowden-Lewis and commission members Sheila M. Prats and Elliot N. Solomon, both of whom are judges. After Bowden-Lewis’ attorney decides to either cross-examine witnesses or rest his case — a decision expected on Wednesday — the commission is expected to meet in a closed-door meeting to determine the next course of action. It is unclear when the proceedings will occur.

“I am not perfect. Anything I have done to offend anyone, I apologize for. I need, and I desire, and deserve to be allowed to make mistakes, learn from them and correct them,” Bowden-Lewis said. “As all my predecessors, I should be able to work within my authority as chief, which means making decisions on my own, have the flexibility to change my mind, and operating within my statutory authority, unencumbered.”