New public defender under fire for representing private clients while in office

The drama at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office appeared to have died down following the much-publicized departure of former chief Mary Moriarity. But a year and a half after assuming the $145,000 job as Hennepin County’s Chief Public Defender, her successor Kassius Benson now faces criticism for continuing to represent private clients in court left over from the law practice he headed before taking the job.

The revelation by the Star Tribune that Benson still maintains private clients while leading the state’s largest public defender’s office immediately raised ethical and legal questions among some contacted by the paper.

The state’s top public defender backs him, but one legal ethicist and a union steward in the Hennepin County office said Benson is violating state law by continuing to work for private clients while running the office.

Minnesota law says chief district public defenders “shall devote full time to the performance of duties and shall not engage in the general practice of law.”

“Clearly, he’s violating the law by continuing the private practice,” said David Schultz, Hamline University professor of political science and legal studies.

Bob Kolstad, union steward for the lawyers represented by the Teamsters Local 320 in the Hennepin County office, said Benson’s continued outside work “shows he’s not as 100% into the job as he claimed he would be.”

The head of the Minnesota Public Defender’s office says Benson deserves time to make the transition from his law firm and clear up the cases of his private legal clients.

State Public Defender William Ward, who oversees all of Minnesota’s districts, said it’s ethical and prudent for a new chief public defender to wind down a private practice.

“It’s not as if he’s not resolving the cases,” said Ward, a former Hennepin County chief public defender. “The guy puts in a bazillion hours.”

Ward insists it’s not uncommon for new public defenders to take time to dispose of legal obligations from their previous practice while serving in office. But Benson still has three private criminal cases at varying stages in the courts, partly due to the slowdown in the legal system due to COVID.

“I’m not seeking cases, running a practice or receiving fees,” Benson said. “Bottom line: I’m finishing my cases.”

Benson said he initially had hoped to be done with all his private clients within 18 months of starting the new job, but the pandemic has slowed the entire court system. He said he expects to wrap up his private clients in the next six months and that he is able to keep the work separate.

“The reality is I’m working all the time,” Benson said. “I don’t use any PD (public defender) resources. I’m very deliberate in making sure those things are separate.”

At the same time, the dozens of public defenders working under Benson also feel unprecedented pressure from the backlog of cases due to the pandemic. They say Benson’s dual responsibilities undercut his credibility with some staff.

Beyond the legality, Kolstad said the lawyers in the office are overwhelmed with work. And managers telling staff that they must start working nights and weekends, he said, sends a message that “obviously this job is not as important for you as you’re requiring it to be for us.”