3 Jacksonville lawyers call for Shirk to resign

Grand jury report recommends public defender resign; he says he won't do that

By Tom Wills - 5 & 6 p.m. anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Three Jacksonville attorneys have joined together and are calling on Public Defender Matt Shirk to resign.

They are asking him to accept the recommendation of a grand jury that he should leave office because of misconduct. But Shirk told News4Jax in an exclusive interview last week that he intends to finish his term, which runs until 2016.

Allegations of inappropriate relationships with female staffers and drinking in the office in 2013 led Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Shirk's office. A grand jury heard testimony and reviewed evidence between May and November and then met in December to prepare its report.

The grand jury found Shirk improperly hired two women -- at least one based on her looks and social media posts. The report said he sent female staffers inappropriate messages, drank alcohol with them in his office and gave out confidential information about his former client, then-12-year-old Cristian Fernandez.

The grand jury did not charge Shirk with a crime, but called his behavior "unacceptable" and urged him to resign.

DOCUMENT: Grand jury recommendation on Shirk

But Shirk said he won't do that.

"This look into how we operate and how I have operated as a leader of the office I'm going to take and use to do better," Shirk said. "In this city and in our criminal justice system, we can always do better."

But attorneys Hank Coxe, Bill Brinton and Bill Adams, however, said it's too late for Shirk to do better. They want him out immediately.

"I understand he disagrees with the recommendation," Brinton said. "He disagrees with the facts. But the grand jury made a recommendation. We have a process. And to not honor the grand jury recommendation in light of all the time that has passed and what has happened is not what this community deserves. I hope that he will reconsider."

Among its many findings, the grand jury criticized Shirk for mishandling of Fernandez's case, when he was charged with murder. The grand jury found that Shirk disclosed to documentary producers privileged information given to him by Fernandez. Shirk told the grand jury he believed he had a waiver of attorney-client privilege from Fernandez, but the grand jury said it simply didn't believe Shirk.

"I'm surprised that I'm being criticized for making a comment that my client was innocent," Shirk said. "Have you ever heard of such a thing?"

But Coxe said Shirk said much more than that.

"It's unfortunate that you didn't have the benefit of what he did say," Coxe said. "The grand jury made a finding that it wasn't credible because it was absolutely not credible. What Matt Shirk did was tell the French documentary people exactly what he claimed Cristian Fernandez told him confidentially -- privileged information -- and then laid it out for the French documentary. That's what he did."

The lawyers also expressed bewilderment with Gov. Scott, who named a special prosecutor to lead the Shirk investigation which went to the grand jury.

"We have 23 citizens of this community who invest months of their time to do this investigation, the governor is waiting for a decision and he gets a decision, and the decision is if Matt Shirk doesn't step down, governor, we recommend you remove him. And he does nothing, absolutely nothing, except, 'Well, we'll wait three years.' Which I take, and this is just my thought, as almost an implicit approval by the governor that 'Matt Shirk can behave the same way for three years. I don't care.'"

"Shirk remaining in office, and the governor not asking him to step down, is a political answer to a leadership problem," Adams said. "We need a leadership answer to a leadership problem. And the grand jury's given us the indication as to what that answer ought to be."

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