State ethics commission: Public defender misused position

Report: Probable cause found that Matt Shirk misused position to hire 3 women

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The State of Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause that a 4th Judicial Circuit Court public defender misused his position to hire or direct the hiring of three women, according to a report released Wednesday. 

Matt Shirk, who's in his second term as public defender for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, engaged in workplace or work-related interactions with the women that were of personal interest to him and unrelated to the function of his office and then terminated them from their employment for the benefit of himself, his wife and their marriage, according to the ethics commission. 

UNCUT: Matt Shirk talks about his history with News4Jax

The report was released nearly three years after Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to look into Shirk in 2013 in response to media reports about Shirk's hiring practices and allegations of inappropriate relationships with women in his office. 

In December 2014, a grand jury completed an investigation of alleged improprieties in Shirk's office, returned no indictment and released a report calling for him to resign

The ethics commission then started looking into Shirk after receiving a request from Gainesville-area State Attorney Bill Cervone, who led the grand jury investigation in 2014.

Matt Carlucci, the vice chair of the Florida Commission on Ethics, told News4Jax that the grand jury report did have an impact on the new findings. 

"The grand jury did have an effect because they were the ones who recommended this be put forth before the ethics commission. And of course, they had done their own research as well, and we have our own investigators that do our own investigation. And Mr. Shirk owned up to the report of our investigation, and to the findings," Carlucci said.

In the report released Wednesday, the ethics commission also said probable cause was found that Shirk misused his office by serving or consuming alcoholic beverages in a city building, which is contrary to a City Code provision. 

Probable cause was also found that Shirk disclosed or used information not available to the general public for his benefit or the benefit of others when he revealed information relating to the representation of a client, obtained in his public capacity, in an interview he gave to a documentary crew interested in his client's case.

News4Jax has learned that the client was then 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez, who was arrested in the March 2011 death of his 2-year-old half brother. He was 14 years old when he pleaded guilty in the case.

The ethics commission found that while Shirk was representing Cristian, he violated the boy's attorney-client privilege by revealing information related to the case to the film crew, during the shooting of the documentary called "Juvenile Lifers."

The Ethics Commision report reveals that, "Shirk did not have permission from Fernandez's guardian ad litem attorney to speak on Fernandez's behalf."

Shirk told the film crew that Cristian said, "I saw my mother kill my brother." According to the Ethics commission, this was a damaging statement to Cristian and his mother.

As it turned out that wasn't true because Cristian himself pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated battery.

According to the ethics commission, no probable cause was found that Shirk misused his position to provide key card access to his wife. The commission also dismissed another allegation -- that he misused his position or public resources to build a private bathroom and shower in his personal office after the city of Jacksonville declined expense for the bathroom with a finding of no probable cause.

In response to all of the probable cause findings by the Ethics Commission, Shirk issued a statement: "I waived my right to have an attorney and simply told the ethics commission that I was sorry for the mistakes I have made and merely put myself at their mercy. I don't claim to be a perfect man, and I thank God that through his grace and love, I am a better man today than I was then."

Carlucci said Shirk owned up to his shortcomings and was contrite when he went before the commission.

"I've seen a lot of respondents like Mr. Shirk, in different situations, try to politicize the process, try to run away from it, make excuses, I appreciated the fact he didn't make any excuses, he just kind of laid himself at the mercy of the ethics commission.  And I think you always do better when you admit your shortcomings than when you try to run from them," Carlucci said. 

The commission will now decide whether Shirk will be fined. That will be determined through negotiations and then another hearing, expected within the next few months.

News4Jax contacted Shirk's attorney, but was told there would be no comment. However, News4Jax reporter Jim Piggott spoke with Shirk two weeks ago at a debate, and asked him about whether the grand jury report would affect his campaign for re-election.

"On this campaign, we're focused on positive reforming of our community and the things that we've done to transform our community and make it a safer place to live," Shirk said.

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