As part of the discipline issued to her last month, Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty must collaborate with supervisors from the Minnesota Board of Public Defense on work-related social media posts and “presentations addressing the relationship” between the board and county.
The conditions were listed in a four-page letter of reprimand the board issued Moriarty in late March; it was publicly disclosed Wednesday.
State Chief Public Defender Bill Ward, who has oversight of Moriarty’s office, and the board’s Chief Administrator, Kevin Kajer, did not return messages seeking comment about how the collaboration would work, or, what the presentations would entail.
“Like the process that led to it, we do not believe the letter of reprimand is consistent with the values of public defense and free speech,” said Moriarty’s attorney, Matthew Frank.
“But at this time, we have no further comment about the details of the letter.”
Moriarty was placed on paid leave Dec. 23 as the board spent $65,349 to investigate claims she posted “inappropriate and offensive” content on social media, had “fractured” relationships with criminal justice leaders in Hennepin County and the judicial branch, and created a fear of retaliation in her office, among other issues cited in the letter.
The board voted March 25 to issue her a letter of reprimand and allowed her to return to work March 30.
Moriarty said Wednesday she’s focused on her staff and clients as the courts adjust to COVID-19, which has limited court operations.
“We are essential employees who are still in court every day, protecting the rights of our clients who are being held at the jail,” she said.
The board hired law firm Felhaber Larson to investigate Moriarty. An investigator interviewed more than 30 “justice partners” and some current and former employees.
Moriarty was interviewed by an investigator on Feb. 6 for five hours, and addressed the board on March 25 before it voted on her discipline.
The board’s mandate is an explicit rebuke of Moriarty’s outspokenness on criminal justice matters and people she disagrees with, and serves as a warning about her future, said Joseph Daly, an emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law who has extensive experience arbitrating workplace disputes.
“I see it as a way of [the board] telling her they’re going to give her one more chance, but this is it — if she crosses the line … she’ll probably lose her job,”
Moriarty’s discipline is a few steps below termination, and more severe than options such as a private reprimand or behind-the-scenes coaching.
“It’s not common for someone like her in a high-level position to have an investigation like this and a reprimand,” Daly said.
The letter of reprimand said Moriarty violated “basic tenets” of general office policies, and broadly chastised her social media presence.
“You have not made a clear delineation between your personal social media account and the Hennepin County Public Defender’s social media account,” the letter said.
“Your personal social media postings identified you as the Chief of the Fourth Judicial District Public Defenders Office and could have created the impression that you were speaking in an official capacity rather than in your personal capacity.”
Two months before she was placed on leave Moriarty tweeted that an unnamed male county attorney went on a “racist tirade” at a bail forum where several people saw her confront Washington County Attorney Pete Orput over his use of the word “thug.”
Orput, considered by many as an important player in criminal justice reform, has said his language was not racially motivated.
The reprimand did not cite the Orput incident.
The letter also said Moriarty made “unauthorized statements” “to advance your personal agenda” before a Hennepin County committee, and that it had “a disruptive effect on the work of the State Board.”
Moriarty had told the committee that the county should reclaim the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office from the state to improve her attorneys’ salaries.
The board required Moriarty to abide by several conditions or face further discipline up to termination.
Among them, she may “not retaliate against any employee or third party” or make any personnel decisions … without consulting” Kajer.
Moriarty first worked for the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office as an investigative intern while she was a student at Macalester College, served two years as a law clerk for the office and became a line attorney there in 1990.
Moriarty served as Ward’s second-in-command when he was chief in Hennepin County. She was appointed chief in 2014 to replace Ward.
Her term was renewed two years later; it expires in August.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708