The Public Defender's Office performs one of the most important functions in our government. The Sixth Amendment states, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall … have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that counsel must be provided to indigent defendants in all felony cases.
The Public Defender's Office is there to represent those who would otherwise have no one to defend them. It is a serious and sacred job. Lives hang in the balance.
So when The Florida Times-Union reported that Public Defender Matt Shirk is accused of "a perceived unusual closeness" with a young woman in his employment and possible public records violations, it detracts from the important work of that office.
Kayle Chester, 28, was an employee at Whisky River and a local attorney's office. A.L. Kelly, director of investigations, said Shirk saw Chester's picture on social media and asked Kelly to contact her about a job with the Public Defender's Office. Kelly said Shirk didn't follow the hiring committee interview process when he hired Chester in May. Shirk's office also hired Chester's coworker from Whisky River, Kristal Coggins, 23.
Greg Strickland, another investigator at the office, said Shirk and Chester were often seen together at morning coffee, lunch, her cubicle or his office. He saidTiffany Ice, 30, also began making trips to Shirk's office with Chester. During the week of June 10, Ice told Strickland that she, Chester and Shirk were drinking shots of liquor in his office. He said Ice later received a text message from Shirk's phone asking her to join him in a shower, but she did not, according to the Times-Union.
Shirk sent an office-wide email that evening that said he lost his phone, according to Strickland. He said that same night, Shirk's wife, Michelle, told Ice during a phone call to end the inappropriate relationship with her husband. He said Shirk's wife visited the office the next day and tried to fire Ice.
On June 17, Chester and Coggins were terminated, according to public records that don't explain why they were fired. Both were employed for a month or less and still on their probationary periods. A week later, Ice
Kelly resigned July 15 after four years with the Public Defender's Office. Strickland resigned July 18; he emailed Shirk that he was upset with how the women and Kelly were treated.
Michelle Shirk had an access badge to the office that was used during the week of June 10. Staff assistant Sherry Spurling deleted the access badge records for Michelle Shirk on Aug. 14, but backup files at City Hall were found when the Times-Union made a public records request.
In addition, public records show that Matt Shirk's access card was used only three days between June 12 and July 11. Kelly's resignation email mentioned that he had trouble getting in touch with Shirk. Shirk's Chief of Staff Ron Mallett left Kelly a voicemail asking him to write a new resignation letter that didn't mention not being able to reach Shirk, the Times-Union reported.
Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to investigate. State Attorney Angela Corey smartly recused herself. That duty will go to Bill Cervone, state attorney in the 8th Judicial Circuit.
Shirk's relationship with Corey has always been close. They campaigned for each other. Questions about their mutual admiration surfaced during the Cristian Fernandez case when Corey pushed to prosecute the 13-year-old as an adult, and Shirk reluctantly withdrew to allow Hank Coxe's team to negotiate a sentence as a juvenile.
Shirk said, in a written statement, that this was a personnel matter that he cannot publicly discuss and his family is off limits. He also wrote an apology to his wife on his personal Facebook page.
"I'm so sorry for all the pain and heartache I have caused you. You mean the world to me. I hope you can forgive me. I love you more than anything in this word [sic]. You are my better half. You are [sic] SOULmate," the post said.
Yes, this soap opera has caused his family pain and heartache. But what about the pain and heartache of the three women who were fired?
Of course, their feelings don't matter. Two of them worked at Whisky River. That's shorthand for incompetent bimbos who work at "breastaurants" in the vein of Hooters or Tilted Kilt. They must have brought this on with their good looks and loose morals, right?
Wrong. That kind of blame-the-victim mentality is only outdone by blame-the-wife reasoning for a man's infidelity.
"My principles wouldn't let me stay there," Kelly told the Times-Union. "I could not deal with those folks [the Shirk administration] mistreating people and destroying their lives the way they did. And those three young ladies' lives, it will affect them and their self-esteem for the rest of their lives."
And what about the pain and heartache of the more than 160 people at the Public Defender's Office who Shirk thanked "for their dedication to public service and for making a difference in the lives of so many"? And the people who desperately need that office's services?
"I can't work for somebody that has no ethics and no character," Strickland told the Times-Union. "A man that could have come in and fixed this and could have taken responsibility and said ‘Look, I made some mistakes, but we're going to make this right for everybody.' "
The time for that has passed.
Shirk beat the Democratic incumbent largely through his strong Republican Party backing for a position that should be nonpartisan. This scandal is a good opportunity to change how elections are held for these offices.