A fight to be the next public defender
Tony HoltThey tout their leadership experience and fiscal responsibility.
Published: August 12, 2012
Published: August 12, 2012
One has worked both sides of the courtroom — defense and prosecution — and the other has worked extensively in both public and private practice, and once ran for county judge.
One works in Citrus County and calls Hernando County home. The other resides and works in Lake County and represents clients across Sumter and Marion counties.
They're squaring off to be the next public defender for the entire 5th Judicial Circuit, which encompasses the five aforementioned counties. The winner between Republicans Bo Samargya and Mike Graves in Tuesday's primary will be elected. There is no Democratic challenger.
Neither Samargya nor Graves lacks ambition or confidence.
Public defender is a job they covet and their political contest is much like a courtroom debate between two zealous lawyers. They're passionate, opinionated — and they've drawn a few objections from each other.
Samargya is quick to point out Graves has been suspended by the Florida Bar, which is followed with a just-as-quick assertion that he, not Graves, is the most trustworthy candidate. Graves says he scores higher than Samargya among his peers, which is why he's snagged endorsements from current Public Defender Howard "Skip" Babb and State Attorney Brad King.
Babb has been the Circuit's public defender since 1980.
Samargya downplays the Graves endorsements, particularly the one from King. If elected to public defender, he's not supposed to get too cozy with the circuit's lead prosecutor.
"Our system is an adversarial system," he said.
Nonetheless, he said he and King are on good terms professionally and he would work to keep it that way.
Graves said he is qualified in death penalty cases and would take an active role in future capital cases if elected. He's tried 15 of them thus far.
He has a constitutionalist mindset, which has suited him well in his profession and would continue to serve him well if he's elected public defender, he said. He's big on state's rights and he wants government close to the people — all people, regardless of which income bracket they fall into, Graves continued.
Samargya, for his part, has business experience. He once ran a health-care business out of his own home. He has a pilot's license. He's also a U.S. Army veteran. He's worked as an assistant state attorney and he's run a private practice. His vast background, he said, gives him a leg up on Graves.
"Someone with a fiscally conservative background and philosophy lends itself to a job like this," said Samargya.
"I had to generate revenue in order to pay out the bills, pay the labor costs," he said, referring to his business experience prior to his career in law. "It gives me the ability to manage budgets … I understand there are other ways out there."
He said he will open the door for more volunteers. In other circuits, the public defender's office collaborates with local community colleges. Students handle background checks and other investigations. Samargya wants the same for the 5th Judicial Circuit.
Such a system means the student gets the experience and the credit and the attorneys get more time to work on their ever-increasing caseloads, Samargya said.
Graves also talked about having a sharper focus on mentoring, but mostly it will consist of making sure the old gets mixed with the new.
Graves said he will be in the courtroom "substantially more" than Babb. He also wants younger attorneys to have senior lawyers backing them up while they handle both misdemeanor and felony cases.
"A good professional practice of law translates to any courtroom in the state," he said. "It's not TV law. We certainly understand that emotions do get involved. We have evidence and we handle ourselves a certain way in court. That's the way the practice of law should always be."
The public defender oversees a $7.28 million budget and 141 employees across five counties, including about 65 attorneys.
"I'm the only candidate in the race who was a prosecutor and a defense attorney," said Samargya, who grew up in Hudson and lives in Southern Hills outside Brooksville. "Besides managing a law practice, I'm the only one who brings private business experience to the table."
He, too, will have a presence in the courtroom if he's elected. He, like Graves, has promised to put a special emphasis on training.
"As a leader, you have to be able to show your troops or your employees that you're willing to do what they are required to do and lead by example."
Graves said Samargya's only experience in a public defender's office was serving six months in Seminole early during his career. Graves' own experience easily trumps his opponent's, he said. He was once a chief assistant under Babb.
"One of the major differences between us is that I've had that opportunity in the public defender's office," he said. "I've had the opportunity to not only supervise lawyers, but also being part of the budget process."
He also wishes to see all cases make it through the system more quickly.
"We can't have the funnel backed up," he said. "There are certain things that are easy and certain things that are hard. The key is to not make the easier stuff hard or else the system is going to get back-logged."
Graves admits mistakes were made that led to his 2005 suspension. He said he didn't provide timely responses to the Florida Bar after grievances were filed against him. Those grievances were dismissed and he ironed out issues with his clients, but he carelessly put off addressing the matter with the Bar, he said.
Consequently, he was suspended for 30 days.
It's a punishment that doesn't regularly happen to Florida Bar members, Samargya said. He said Graves has shown a pattern of violating rules and accused him of committing up to nine violations during a 10-month period.
"I believe that's an issue," Samargya said. "I follow the rules.
"It's not a little thing. It's a very big thing. I think it's an important issue for voters. They need to know who they can trust."
Graves said he wishes his opponent wasn't making the suspension such a major issue in his campaign. Doing so means Samargya is clinging to something that amounts to only a speck in an otherwise sterling career, said Graves.
"I've earned an outstanding reputation for professionalism," Graves said. "Some of it was simply time management. I've worked on those things and improved upon them … Nowadays the Bar calls me when it comes to issues about other lawyers. The rest of the legal world has gotten past it, but I certainly haven't forgotten it."
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