Distrust, Power Wrangling, and the Battle Over Rochester’s Next Public Defender
Monroe County Legislator Sabrina LaMar stands outside the Monroe County Office Building in downtown Rochester on August 6, 2020. | Shawn Dowd / Democrat and Chronicle

Distrust, Power Wrangling, and the Battle Over Rochester’s Next Public Defender

The Monroe County legislature’s president, Sabrina LaMar, has denigrated public defenders and shut them out of the now-eight-month-long process to appoint the next head of their office.

This article was published in partnership with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Monroe County, home to Rochester, has been without a top public defender for more than 230 days. There has been no shortage of candidates to fill the position, including several with extensive experience in the public defender’s office, which represents people who can’t afford their own lawyers in criminal and family court. But a struggle in the county legislature, the body tasked with filling the position, has led to an impasse.

At the center of the struggle is Sabrina LaMar, the legislature’s president and current ringmaster of an ideologically fluctuating Rochester political faction. LaMar, a Democrat who elbowed her way into the president’s seat by forging an agreement with Republicans, has owned the appointment process. She created the committee tasked with whittling down the candidate pool and chose most of its members. She has portrayed the final hiring decision as hers to make unilaterally, even though it requires a majority vote in the legislature. She has misconstrued complaints against public defenders to boost her preferred nominee. And she has delayed putting her nominee up for a vote — the two finalist candidates were announced four months ago — as he likely doesn’t have enough support among her colleagues in the legislature.

The nominee, Buffalo-based attorney Robert Fogg, also lacks support from rank and file public defenders — in considerable part because he is LaMar’s pick, which strips him of the benefit of the doubt and raises fears that he will disrupt the fine-tuned operations of their widely respected office, or even compromise its independence. LaMar and her selection committee have done little to allay public defenders’ worries: They’ve largely shut them out of deliberations and offered little insight into Fogg’s ideas about public defense and plans for the job.

Eight current and recently former public defenders who spoke to New York Focus explained how the politically charged appointment process has fostered widespread mistrust of Fogg and bred an atmosphere of cynicism and resentment within their office. It especially didn’t help when, at a press conference announcing Fogg’s nomination, LaMar unequivocally bashed the public defenders, accusing them of a “lack of compassion, empathy, and understanding.”

Were caught in the middle of some kind of political gunfire here with Sabrina LaMar. Shes making our lives a living hell.

a veteran Monroe County public defender

Many of the public defenders expressed concern about the ongoing turmoil’s effects on their office’s ability to retain staff and hire for its more than 20 open attorney positions. Attracting talent to western New York is already difficult, they said, and uncertainty over the next head of the chronically underfunded 170-person office — which represents more than 15,000 people a year — is making it an even taller task. Across the country, unsustainably high caseloads and overwork are leading public defenders to burn out and quit.

“People research the office before applying, and they’re like, ‘What’s going on with the public defender position — all this controversy?’” said Gabriela Wolfe, who worked at the public defender’s office and was on its hiring committee until last month. “In order to be as competitive as possible, we need to have our house in order.”

The situation has exacerbated years-old tensions simmering in Rochester and Monroe County, and reveals the extent to which the local politics are hung up on deep distrust and sectional power wrangling — even when it comes to what is in many other municipalities a routine, uncontentious appointment. Fogg is caught in the middle of these tensions, which have already eaten up about a third of the next public defender’s first two-year term.

Further complicating the appointment battle is LaMar’s assertion that Monroe County needs a Black top public defender. (Fogg is Black. The other finalist for the position, who has worked in the office for 28 years and is serving as an interim manager, is white.) While most of her opponents agree that there is a need for more public defender diversity, they question how LaMar — who has falsely asserted that Fogg would be the county’s first person of color in the top public defender job — is going about providing it.

“I’m a Black woman attorney. I’ve had to deal with people thinking I’m the diversity hire, or I’m the diversity scholarship,” said Natalie Ann Knott, who worked in the public defender’s office from 2017 to December 2021. “To see Black political leadership making that nightmare a kind of reality — what kind of employment standards is the county being held to?”

Public defenders said they have called, emailed, and sent letters expressing their concerns to LaMar’s office and to the selection committee she assembled, to no response. They’ve become so perturbed by the appointment process that, this week, they announced their intention to form a union, organizing “to prevent their office from being used as a political pawn in local political conflicts.”

After requesting an interview with LaMar, New York Focus received a call from her special assistant, Vincent Felder, who rebuffed criticisms. “The fact is, we got the best candidate possible for the job, and all these other things are being brought in to obscure that,” he said. Felder asserted that politicization and an insular public defender’s office are what have tarnished the appointment process.

“We’re caught in the middle of some kind of political gunfire here with Sabrina LaMar,” said one veteran public defender, who asked to remain anonymous because staff aren’t permitted to speak to the press. “She’s making our lives a living hell.”

THE JOSTLING OVER the Monroe County public defender appointment has its roots in longstanding webs of local power politics.

While control of Monroe County political bodies fluctuates between the two major parties, in Rochester, home to close to 30 percent of the county’s population, Democrats rule. And for years, the man who ruled over Rochester Democratic politics was David Gantt.

Over nearly five decades in office — first as a county legislator, then as the first Black person to represent Monroe County in the state Assembly — Gantt became the boss of the political scene, running Rochester by fostering an inner circle of Democratic protégés, including judges, city council members, county legislators, and recent Mayor Lovely Warren.

In 2020, members of that circle, led by Warren and LaMar, made up one side of a foreshadowing fracas over who could appoint the next Democratic commissioner for the county board of elections. The members of the Gantt camp unsuccessfully boosted their political ally for the job — even though she had previously withdrawn from consideration because she didn’t think she had enough experience — and accused those who disagreed of racist double standards.

That summer, Gantt, still in power at the age of 78, died from kidney failure. Just two months after his passing, four of his mentees in the county legislature, including LaMar, made a move to boost their own power: They broke away from the legislature’s Democratic Caucus and formed their own bloc, which they named the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus.

In justifying the breakaway, the four legislators asserted that the Democratic Caucus was ignoring their constituents, and that the new caucus sought to focus on matters most affecting their communities, namely justice and equity in business, criminal justice, and education. But in order to gain power in the legislature, the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus allied with Republicans, agreeing to caucus with them. (Among those Republicans were legislators who had passed a so-called “annoyance law” — later repealed — which made it a crime to intentionally do something that “annoys, alarms, or threatens the personal safety of” police.) The political reshuffling was a huge blow to county Democrats: It transformed the legislative dynamic from a slim Republican majority to a Republican supermajority, which held strong over the next year through dozens of votes and several overrides of the Democratic county executive’s veto power.

The Black and Asian Caucus drew comparisons to the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, a group of Democratic New York state senators who, from 2011 to 2018, allied with Republicans, handing the GOP the Senate majority in Albany. Unlike the IDC, however, the Black and Asian Caucus lasted only a year: Two members lost their primaries in 2021, and a third didn’t run. LaMar’s assistant, Felder, then a Democratic county legislator and an ally of the caucus, also lost his primary. Only LaMar, who faced no primary challengers that year, remained — and immediately made a move to recoup her political weight.

At the start of the following legislative session this January, LaMar again allied with Republicans — this time in a bid to become president of the legislature. The maneuver worked: She won the position by casting the deciding vote herself, with all of the legislature’s Republicans and none of the Democrats lining up behind her. In exchange for the Republican votes, she agreed to once again caucus with the GOP.

Again, LaMar’s deal-making with Republicans tilted the legislative balance significantly in their favor. In addition to ousting most of the Republican-caucusing Democrats in the recent election cycle, Democrats had flipped one Republican seat, giving them a fragile 15–14 majority. But LaMar’s bid for president effectively nullified that, giving Republicans control of the county legislature once again.

SHORTLY BEFORE LAMAR ascended to the legislative presidency, Monroe County’s public defender of 14 years, Republican Tim Donaher, announced his retirement from the office. To replace Donaher, LaMar created a selection committee to find and interview candidates, directly appointing five of its seven members herself.

The selection committee sent the job listing to every major bar association in the state, according to Nathan Van Loon, the LaMar-appointed head of the committee. (In 2020, Van Loon was the lawyer for the Monroe County Democratic Committee and sided with LaMar’s camp on the question of who had the power to appoint the board of elections commissioner.) The committee received eight applications, conducted a round of interviews, and cut four, including the then-interim head of the office, who promptly resigned.

In April, after further vetting, the committee cut two more applicants, including a prosecutor whose candidacy public defenders and community activists had organized against. The two finalists were public defender Julie Cianca, who received four affirmative committee votes, and Fogg, who received a vote from all seven committee members. According to Joan Kohout, a retired family court judge and the Democrats’ sole designee to the committee, the final vote took place over video call with no discussion, despite her requests for deliberation.

Van Loon, who said he voted for both finalists, outlined the main reasons he thinks the committee favored Fogg. They were impressed by the many types of law he has practiced, including federal appeals, as well as the fact that he was the only candidate with a master of laws degree. The committee also appreciated his demeanor: He was “polished,” with a “compelling personal story” involving military service and deciding to go into law after experiencing police racism. And finally, the committee thought that he could successfully bolster the public defender’s office’s efforts to recruit and hire more people of color.

But none of that was clear to rank and file public defender’s office staff, who felt that both the selection committee and LaMar had cut them out of the process. “We’ve sent letters, we’ve made calls, emails. We went to legislative meetings and spoke up. We’ve gone to public forums and spoken up. We’ve never received a response from anybody,” said the veteran public defender.

The lack of communication was especially upsetting given LaMar’s criticisms of the public defender’s office. “[Staffers] have repeatedly expressed their concern that Ms. LaMar speaks about an office she clearly does not understand and has not bothered to learn about,” said Erik Teifke, interim head of the office. “Even those efforts did not result in any response from Ms. LaMar.”

I don’t think anybody could say anything truly bad about me, because they don’t know me.

Robert Fogg, nominee for Monroe County Public Defender

Van Loon asserted that the committee spoke to some public defenders when checking applicants’ references, but otherwise thought it was inappropriate to seek staffers’ input during the process. “That wasn’t within our purview, and I think that’d be very disruptive,” he said. “Everyone has their favorites.”

Felder echoed Van Loon’s reasoning. “Asking the current employees who they want their boss to be, I’ve never heard of that,” he said. “Change is never easy,” he added.

What the committee would have heard from public defenders is that, between the two finalists, most prefer Cianca, who has tried more than 150 cases during her nearly three decades at the office. They cite her leadership as Teifke’s first assistant during the current tumult, as well as her open door policy and mentorship of staff. “She is who we all go to for absolutely everything,” the veteran public defender said.

In an interview with New York Focus, Cianca asserted that experience in the office is crucial to leading it. “I’ve suffered with clients. I’ve suffered with clients’ families. I’ve beat my head against the wall when we’re not getting the right decisions from judges. I’ve done this work,” she said.

Robert Fogg. left, and Julie Cianca, right, introduce themselves during a public meeting on April 18, 2022, in Rochester. │ Shawn Dowd / Democrat and Chronicle

Unlike Cianca, the public defenders know little about Fogg. They fear that LaMar is attempting to appoint an outsider who will sabotage their office. “Will he come in and strip our office of our senior attorneys and our institutional knowledge? Will he come in and bring his own people?” wondered another current public defender, who also asked to remain anonymous.

Fogg acknowledged that he is an unknown commodity. “I don’t think anybody could say anything truly bad about me, because they don’t know me,” he told New York Focus. (According to Teifke, he, Cianca, and the former interim head of the public defender’s office have offered to meet with Fogg over the past few months, but he never replied.)

What staffers do know about Fogg makes them wary: He has spent most of his legal career as a defense attorney, but has only worked in public defense (as a contractor with Niagara County) for a year — less time than he worked as a prosecutor.

Fogg worked for the Eric County District Attorney’s Office from 2003 to 2005, including as the chief prosecutor for the office’s community prosecution unit. Community prosecution proliferated in the United States in the 1990s as part of an effort to deploy district attorneys’ offices to address minor crimes and “social disorder.” According to his curriculum vitae, Fogg “redefined and restricted” the unit “to proactively and aggressively address neighborhood quality of life issues,” including “nuisance abatement,” “neighborhood blight,” and “lower level misdemeanor and violation offenses.” He said that he still believes in community prosecution, and sees it as a way to help defendants — for instance, by diverting someone’s charges on the condition that they earn their GED within a certain period of time.

Fogg said that he doesn’t see his stint as a prosecutor nearly two decades ago as a liability for the public defender job. “Your dedication must be to the law, period,” he said. “You can be persuasive for one side or the other. And it doesn’t matter what you believe in. The moment you start to have these feelings for the case is the moment you start to blindside yourself.”

Staffers have repeatedly expressed their concern that Ms. LaMar speaks about an office she clearly does not understand and has not bothered to learn about.

Erik Teifke, interim head of the Monroe County Public Defenders Office

Addressing public defender concerns, Fogg asserted that he has practiced every facet of law that the public defender’s office practices, from family law to criminal appeals. He also said that he’d “be a fool” to fire people and replace them with his own staff. Rather, he wants to recruit more staff, find money in the budget to raise salaries, and open new bureaus, like an immigration bureau.

“I plan to sit there and listen to every single one of the [public defenders] and every staff member to figure out how we as the office itself can improve,” he said.

FOGG DIDN’T KNOW that LaMar was nominating him for public defender until he arrived in Rochester on July 27 — more than three months after being announced as a finalist for the job — having been invited to a press conference, he said.

“I go up there, and I go, ‘What’s this about?’” he recalled. “‘Miss LaMar is going to select you,’” he remembers someone saying. Someone asked him if he had prepared any remarks. He hadn’t, because he didn’t know he was getting the nomination.

Fogg greeted LaMar, whom he said he hadn’t met before, and followed her and a group of men to a podium. LaMar started the press conference by invoking the late David Gantt, recalling a time that he was arrested in 2008 while protesting the nomination of former public defender Donaher, whom Republicans appointed without giving anyone else much opportunity for input.

“I made sure we did things the right way this time,” she said.

In a sharp tonal turn, LaMar then made her comments denigrating the public defender’s office. “Time and time again I have heard complaints about the lack of compassion, empathy, and understanding,” she said. She claimed that community members had expressed concern about public defender representation and that detained youth had expressed that they don’t hear from their lawyers — repeating assertions from a 2021 report from Rochester and Monroe County’s Commission on Racial and Structural Equity. Felder confirmed that LaMar had lifted the points from the commission report.

But the commission report wasn’t meant to condemn public defenders. The author of the section of the report that LaMar referenced —  Danielle Ponder, former diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for the public defender’s office — has said that it was meant to highlight the need for more resources. The office is “far from” perfect, but public defenders are “working insane hours … tirelessly for their clients,” she wrote on Twitter. Most of the public defenders who spoke to New York Focus echoed this dynamic. “You don’t have to work there for very long before you’re working [overtime] for free,” said Cianca. “That appears to be meaningless to the people criticizing us. They never come to our office.”

Yet LaMar framed the community complaints as an office culture issue. “These things need to change, and the change must happen now,” she said at the press conference.

Like his nomination, the complaints were news to Fogg. “I only hear the great stories of the [public defender’s] office,” he later said. Standing next to LaMar in a sharp gray suit, hat in hand, he listened intently.

LaMar concluded her remarks by calling the county legislature to action, portraying a Fogg appointment as a courageous act in furtherance of racial justice. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s proverb about where one “stands at times of challenge and controversy,” she asked her colleagues in the legislature, “Where do you stand?”

Standing directly behind LaMar was La’Ron Singletary, former chief of the Rochester Police Department. Singletary resigned in 2020 during protests against the Rochester police killing of Daniel Prude, whom officers placed in a spit hood and pinned to the ground, suffocating him, while he was experiencing a mental health crisis after ingesting the drug PCP. Singletary, Mayor Warren, and other police leadership worked to suppress footage of Prude’s death for months, an investigation later found. Singletary is now running for Congress as a Republican on a pro-police, pro-Second Amendment, pro-immigration enforcement, pro-Dobbs platform.

From left to right, Jeffrey Melvin, Sabrina LaMar, and La’Ron Singletary at a press conference announcing the nomination of Robert Fogg for Monroe County public defender on July 27, 2022.

Also standing behind LaMar was Jeffrey Melvin, a local pastor who was among former Mayor Warren’s most vocal defenders as she faced felony campaign finance violation charges in 2020 and child endangerment charges in 2021. Melvin was also one of LaMar’s appointees on the selection committee.

Unprompted and with outrage, most public defenders who spoke to New York Focus brought up Singletary’s presence at the press conference, and every one brought up LaMar’s remarks about public defenders’ lack of compassion.

“The entire office has been shown over and over again that their employer, the county, does not respect them, does not consider their job vital and important,” said Knott.

“What the hell is President LaMar doing?” said a current public defender. “Daniel Prude is our client — he represents the community that we represent — and you’re standing next to La’Ron Singletary?”

When asked about Singletary’s presence at the press conference, Felder, LaMar’s assistant, objected to the premise of the question. He then spoke for nine minutes about how it was evidence of a bad-faith politicization of the appointment process.

“What this is is people who are the Democratic Party, mostly, who are behind this whole controversy over this whole thing and are trying to inflate Julie Cianca’s qualifications, are now trying to bring controversy about two years ago into the situation,” he said.

What the hell is President LaMar doing? Daniel Prude represents the community that we represent, and you’re standing next to La’Ron Singletary?

a Monroe County public defender

Felder asserted that Singletary hasn’t been found guilty of any illegal activity in the Prude case. “He wasn’t there when Daniel Prude got killed — he was home asleep,” he said.

ONLY LAMAR HAS the power to bring Fogg’s nomination up for a vote in the county legislature. Many wondered if she would do it when the legislature convened in the weeks following the press conference. But she didn’t.

Democratic legislators Susan Hughes-Smith and Albert Blankley said that Fogg likely doesn’t have the 15 votes needed to win the appointment. (The legislature’s Republican majority leader, Steve Brew, declined to be interviewed for this article.) 

Both legislators said that, for future county legislature appointments, they want to codify a committee process that takes away the president’s unilateral control over nominations.

According to Felder, the Fogg nomination will be on the agenda for the next meeting of the legislature’s public safety committee. If he passes through, the full legislature will bring it up at its next full meeting on September 13.