The Minnesota Board of Public Defense agreed to pay a $300,000 settlement to former Chief Hennepin County Defender Mary Moriarty on Tuesday, less than a year after it voted against renewing Moriarty's position in a contentious dispute that laid bare a deep rift between the criminal defense board and its busiest office.
The state board did not admit wrongdoing, but it "agreed to a complete settlement of all of the disputes" between state leadership and Moriarty, avoiding a future lawsuit, according to the out-of-court settlement. In return, Moriarty will officially retire from the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office, where she still is technically employed, and agree not to seek future work with Minnesota's public defense board.
"I think the number speaks for itself," Moriarty said of the settlement amount in an interview Tuesday. "Public defenders play a really critical role in criminal system reform because we see everyday injustices. I really worry about the ability of Minnesota public defenders to speak candidly about racial injustice and the policies and practices of prosecutors and justices after what happened to me."
State Chief Public Defender Bill Ward said he couldn't comment on personnel issues. "However, in general if there are situations where there is potential litigation, the board must weigh the costs of settling issues versus the costs involved with protracted litigation," he said.
Moriarty started working in the Hennepin County office as a law clerk and took a job as a public defender in 1990. She became the first woman to lead the Hennepin office in 2014 and has been an outspoken critic of racial disparities and other issues of fairness in the Twin Cities criminal justice system, at times clashing with police, prosecutors and judges outside the courtroom.
In December 2019, Ward announced he was placing Moriarty on indefinite suspension. The state board hired a law firm to investigate allegations that she had posted offensive content on social media, created a fearful environment in her office and fractured relationships with criminal justice leaders. A letter of reprimand said Moriarty made unauthorized statements "to advance [her] personal agenda" before a Hennepin County committee, and that her actions had "a disruptive effect on the work of the state board."
In a six-hour meeting last year, Moriarty rebutted those accusations, saying she was being attacked because of her advocacy for her clients and against racial injustices. She accused the board of sexism, racism and holding a double standard regarding her advocacy for clients and staff. She clashed with Ward, who she said bullied and harassed her, belittling her by calling her "young lady."
She cited 175 letters from supporters that were written on her behalf to the board. "You are going to ignore that and essentially fire me," she said. The board voted 4-2 to not renew Moriarty's term and later selected Kassius Benson to succeed Moriarty.
"I was and still am an ardent supporter of Mary and wish her well in her future endeavors," said Elizer Darris, a member of the defense board who voted in Moriarty's favor, who declined to comment on specifics of the settlement.
Moriarty said she was proud of her work as chief. "This is not where I thought I would be, but I'm here," she said. "So I am going to move on and figure out how to make the best use of my skills."
Staff writers Chao Xiong and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036