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Outgoing public defender's spending causing concern

Matt Shirk gives 11 employees large raises, considers buying new database

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A former employee of the Public Defender's Office is questioning how the man who was voted out of the top job is spending money and running the office during his final months in charge.

Public Defender Matt Shirk lost his re-election bid in the Aug. 30 Republican primary by a 3-1 margin to former Judge Charlie Cofer.

"I think the public should be concerned when you have a lame duck public defender ... who is going to spend as much money as he can, no matter what," said Joe Frasier, who worked in the office for 21 years.

Shirk fired Frasier and three others the day after the primary defeat.

Documents show that Shirk is using taxpayer money to give significant raises -- in some cases doubling salaries -- to 11 employees. He is also planning to spend a considerable amount of money to launch a new computer database without consulting the incoming public defender.

"He campaigned on being a fiscal conservative. There is nothing conservative about spending the money he's going to spend and in three months (until) he's out of there," Frasier told the I-TEAM. "That's just wasteful spending. I don't know if anyone can stop him."

The I-TEAM has asked to talk to Shirk about this for three weeks, but there as been no response.

We did find a national IT magazine from 2012 where Shirk applauded Frasier for his database -- the system now being replaced.

One year later, Shirk was embroiled in controversy tied to hiring two former waitresses and accusations of sending sexually suggestive messages to employees. A special prosecutor investigated and strongly criticized Shirk's behavior and suggested he resign, but stopped short of prosecuting Shirk

Frasier said that's when his relationship with Shirk soured.

"It would go back to the emails that went to the grand jury. I made sure I preserved those emails. It's my job," Frasier said. "I didn't write the emails; he did. I backed them up. It's my job."

Asked if he thought Shirk was fit to lead the office for the three months remaining in his term, Frasier deferred to the opinion of others.

"According to the voters, no. According to the grand jury report, no," Frasier said.

One public defender employee given an 80 percent pay raise was chief investigator Robert Schoonover, a former Jacksonville Sheriff's Office homicide lieutenant who was disciplined for his ineffective response to the abduction of Cherish Perrywinkle, the 8-year-old who was taken from his mother at a Westside Walmart and found dead the next day.

Firing four employees did free up more than $200,000 in the budget, but the raises and unknown amount to be spent on the database would likely cost more than the amount saved.

Contacted Thursday, Cofer told the I-TEAM that he is troubled by the things he's hearing taking place at the office that he will take over in January.

"It's certainly a concern," Cofer said. "One of the primary issues whenever you take an office such as this is the budget, making sure that you can continue appropriately through the end of the fiscal year."

That fiscal year is July to June, so when Cofer is likely elected in November -- he faces only a write-in candidate -- he'll have to work for close to seven months with Shirk’s remaining budget.

As for Joe Frasier, the week after he was fired by Shirk, he was hired by the State Attorney’s Office.

 


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