State agency spending thousands on improving image after ANF investigations
Part eight of The Sixth, a special investigation into the shortage of public defenders.
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - An Atlanta News First investigation has uncovered a state agency spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on public relations firms to help with its image following multiple investigations by the local news outlet.
Over the past few years, the Georgia Public Defender Council, which represents 85% of all people charged with crimes, has struggled to hire enough attorneys.
Since December, Atlanta News First investigations has shed light on multiple people behind bars in county jails across Georgia, legally innocent, but without legal representation, a violation of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In an apparent attempt to put a positive spin on the struggling agency, documents obtained through public record requests show the Defender Council has hired two public relations companies.
THE SIXTH | A SPECIAL ATLANTA NEWS FIRST INVESTIGATION
TobinInk is one of them. According to its $4,500 contract, the company provided the agency with multiple services, including “Thought Leadership,” “Social Media Strategy,” and “On-Call Crisis Communication.”
Internal emails show the Defender Council hired TobinInk about two weeks after Atlanta News First interviewed agency director Omotayo Alli in November, asking her to respond to judges’ frustration over shortages in court appointed attorneys.
RELATED: Here’s why these public defenders left their jobs
Three months later, the Defender Council hired another public relations company, Lucie Content. It’s run by former local TV journalists.
The taxpayer cost to hire Lucie: $24,500. According to its current contract, the media company will provide help with “Overall messaging,” “Develop Narrative Opportunities” and “Social Media Support.”
Gray Television, the parent company of Atlanta News First, has a contract with Lucie to provide similar services.
Since employing Lucie, the Defender Council has increased posting on its Facebook page, including congratulating employees on awards and job openings, but also about “International Jugglers Day, “National Golfer’s Day,” and “Caramel Popcorn Day.”
Andrew Fleischman is a former public defender who worked at the agency. Atlanta News First shared the public relations contracts with him.
“It feels as though they are saying, ‘OK, people think we’re doing a bad job because we’re getting bad press,’ instead of thinking, ‘We’re getting bad press because we’re doing a bad job,” Fleischman said. “It’s unusual for a government agency to have to spend taxpayer dollars to persuade taxpayers that their money is being spent wisely.”
In an email to Atlanta News First Investigates, a Defender Council spokesperson said it contracts with media companies as a way to augment and inform its strategic communications plan.
“We seek to engage and educate the public by showcasing the positive impact of our work,” said Natalie Glaser, the council’s chief legal officer.
“Collaborating with a media company is a cost-effective tool to improve employee recruitment and retention and, in turn, continue to improve outcomes for our clients,”
Alli did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.
In March, the Defender Council produced a video posted on Fulton County Government’s YouTube page. It features an interview with Alli raving about her accomplishments since Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her as head of the agency in 2020.
“We have more employees than we’ve ever had in the history of the agency,” Alli said in the video. “We have funding than we’ve ever had in the history of the agency and that’s the last two years.”
In the nearly 16-minute interview, Alli takes about 10 seconds to acknowledge issues facing the agency and its struggle to appoint legal representation to defendants.
“Now, do we have challenges? Yes, we do. We sometimes don’t have enough employees, but we know that the most important thing we have to do is make sure that there is representation when it is needed,” she said.
Fleischman said Alli appears to be ignoring the challenges appointing attorneys to people it’s obligated to serve. “It seems to me that she believes she is doing a tremendous job,” he said. “She just holds herself to a very low standard.”
This story is part of a series about the constitutionally-guaranteed access to legal representation in court, and the challenges that arise when the supply of defenders is limited. Part one in the series looks at defendants’ desperate need for representation. Part two covers judges forced to take actions that may erode the public’s trust in the judicial system. In part three, former public defenders explain why they left the job. Part four looks at the search for solutions. Part five shows the agency’s director admits to lawmakers the Defender Council doesn’t have enough attorneys. Part six explains why the Defender Council does not want to pay for investigative resources for an indigent defendant. Part seven explains why a man has been behind bars for 10 years waiting for his day in court.
ANF+ Behind The Investigation: Andy Pierrotti takes you behind this latest installment in his investigative series “The Sixth,” a special investigation into the shortage of public defenders.
If there’s something you would like Atlanta News First Investigative Reporter Andy Pierrotti to look into, email email@example.com.
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