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Cook Co.'s public defender fights to keep his position

Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Chicago Defender
by Joseph Ryan

Cook County's public defender is fighting county board President Todd Stroger's efforts to fire him, warning such a move would open up the defender's office to political corruption.

"If you are not politically independent, then you are politically dependent," Edwin Burnette said Tuesday after filing a legal motion to postpone his pending county termination hearing.

Burnette accuses Stroger of meddling with staffing at the defender's office and undermining its funding. He filed a lawsuit against Stroger late last year seeking to restore laid-off employees, a move cited in a recent lengthy county proposal that called for Burnette's termination hearing.

Stroger's administration says it is doing nothing wrong.

"We are following the law," said Richard Velazquez, Stroger's special counsel, who declined to directly address the allegations against Burnette.

Velazquez himself is at the center of the storm. He was placed on Burnette's payroll last spring as a top supervisor by Stroger without the public defender's consent or knowledge.

Velazquez had been a lawyer for four years and wasn't actually working for Burnette representing poor defendants charged with crimes in Cook County.

Instead, Velazquez was working as Stroger's adviser.

On Tuesday, Velazquez declined to answer questions about the matter, which drew heavy criticism from county reformers at the time.

Burnette was appointed to his post in 2003 by Stroger's father, John, and his 6-year term is set to expire in April of next year.

Burnette's latest legal motion asks Cook County Judge Daniel Riley to put off his May 7 termination hearing until his original lawsuit is resolved or until Stroger defines the hearing's procedures.

Burnette argues that he is not subordinate to Stroger -- and for good reason.

He points out that state law appoints him to a lengthy term and requires a hearing that establishes "good cause or dereliction of duty" before his termination.

Other county department heads can be hired and fired at will by Stroger.

The difference is important, Burnette contends, because political influence over public defenders can corrupt the representation of those defending accused in Cook County courts.

Burnette said he "cannot be removed just because of policy differences."

Burnette's legal motion is expected to be heard on Friday. Taxpayers are footing the legal bills for both sides of the lawsuit.



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