Filings allege sexual harassment by public defender

At its troubled Cordele office in South Georgia, the state public defenders system has replaced a lawyer accused of incompetence with one accused of sexual harassment, according to court filings.

Burt Baker, recently named interim head of the Cordele office, sexually harassed a number of women by making advances toward them, giving them lingerie and sending them inappropriate emails and letters, the court filing alleges. The motion includes sworn statements from two lawyers who once worked with Baker and an internal memo in 2010 outlining disciplinary action against him after a female employee lodged a harassment complaint.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Baker acknowledged that he was demoted four years ago for inappropriate behavior toward a colleague. “I deeply regret the embarrassment and upset I caused both that colleague and my family,” he said.

“As for the affidavits, neither employee made any complaints against me that I am aware of,” he said. “I am shocked by these accusations, especially so many years after their departure from the agency.”

A spokeswoman for the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council said, “The truth of what is alleged in those affidavits is in dispute.”

Because the alleged behavior is “absolutely unacceptable,” however, the council is now investigating the matter, spokeswoman Cheryl Karounos said.

In one affidavit, Stacey Flynn Morris, who worked in the capital defender office in Tifton from 2009 to 2011, said Baker continually made unwelcome advances toward her and other women. Baker persisted “despite my repeated and unequivocal rejections of them,” Morris said.

On one occasion, in a parking garage in Griffin, Baker gave her a red see-through nightgown, Morris said. “I found the whole situation totally disgusting,” she said.

After Morris complained in May 2010, cases were reassigned so she no longer had to work with Baker, Morris said. Even so, Baker continued harassing her and another female employees, she said.

“He made my work environment incredibly hostile and made me hate a job that I had hoped to love,” Morris said. ” … I know women who report sexual harassment get stigmatized, but I am willing to take that risk if it helps keep Mr. Baker from harassing more women and hurting clients.”

Contacted Tuesday, Morris, now a private attorney in Peachtree City, stood by her affidavit. “It’s the truth,” she said. “If he’s trying to get in a position of authority over other women, that’s frightening.”

‘Extremely hostile to women’

In another affidavit, former public defender Jason Carini painted an unpleasant picture of the Cordele defender office, which Baker headed in the mid-2000s. Baker “tolerated and contributed to an office environment that was extremely hostile to women,” Carini said.

For a while, Baker’s computer screen saver, visible to anyone who visited his office, displayed a photo of actress Phoebe Cates rising out of a swimming pool in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Carini said. He said Baker replaced the screen saver after women in the office complained about it.

An April 2010 internal memo, written by Jerry Word, who heads Georgia’s capital defender office, details allegations of sexual harassment against Baker by another woman. This employee, whose name was redacted, said Baker made inappropriate sexual advances to her, including one occasion when he gave her lingerie.

The woman said she repeatedly told Baker to stop, but he would start up again if she was the least bit nice to him and get mad when she rebuffed him, the memo said.

When confronted about it, Baker admitted he had acted inappropriately, the memo says. Baker was then told he could not take adverse action against the woman and could only have face-to-face contact with her if other employees were present. Baker soon asked that someone else be allowed to supervise the woman, the memo said.

In his statement, Baker said he has “worked hard to regain my supervisory title and put my life back on track since that time of personal crisis.” Tifton’s capital defender office, he said, enjoyed tremendous success during his recent tenure there.

‘Sham hiring process’

The recent court filing, which disclosed the harassment allegations, is the latest attack on the state’s handling of the Cordele office by lawyers for the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter.

In January, these attorneys, representing indigent defendants, sued state officials and local judges, county commissioners, prosecutors and public defenders in the four-county circuit 65 miles south of Macon. The suit contends there has been a systemic failure in the circuit to provide meaningful legal representation to adult and juvenile clients.

While the lawsuit was pending, Tim Eidson, who headed the Cordele defender office, was removed from his position, and Baker was named the office's interim circuit defender.

The Southern Center’s court motion accused the state agency of engineering a “sham hiring process” because it never planned to consider anyone else to head Cordele’s office. It noted that Eidson traded places with Baker, taking over Baker’s job as a supervisor in the state capital defender’s office in Tifton.

When a local selection committee requested applications for the permanent Cordele position, Stephen Bright, the Southern Center's senior counsel and a nationally recognized expert on indigent defense, put in for the job. Bright said he applied because he was so dismayed by the hiring process and wanted Cordele to be a model defender office for the nation, not the worst in Georgia.

Nine lawyers, including Baker, applied. On Wednesday, in light of the Southern Center’s court motion, state and local officials reopened the application process for another 30 days.