Grand jury: Public Defender Matt Shirk should resign

Report cites 'inexcusable conduct,' but doesn't charge Shirk with any crime

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

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A special grand jury that investigated Public Defender Matt Shirk for much of the year is out with a scathing report that calls for the second-term elected official to resign.

"He has put his personal interest first and has acted as if his office was a playpen intended to amuse and indulge his whims. In so doing, he has shown himself to be lacking the maturity to hold that office and possessed of an entitlement mentality that is simply unacceptable," the report concluded. "The grand jury calls upon Shirk to immediately resign from his position."

In an exclusive interview, Shirk told News4Jax he would not resign because he was not charged with a crime.

"I'm not going to say that the grand jury was wrong... but they relied on testimony that was inaccurate," Shirk said.

Shirk is public defender of the 4th Judicial Circuit, serving Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.

DOCUMENT: Presentment of grand jury investigation of Matt Shirk
UNCUT: Matt Shirk talks to Tom Wills about grand jury findings

Late last year, responding to media reports about Shirk's hiring practices and allegations of inappropriate relationships with women in his office, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to look into Shirk.  

The grand jury met six times between May and November and deliberated its findings on Dec. 16.

Among the contents of the 16-page report: "By the time his second term of office began, however, Shirk himself began to exhibit a different attitude towards his job that was characterized by a greater interest in his personal interests than in the office as a whole. This was noticed especially by several of his administrative and leadership staff.

"The testimony heard by the grand jury clearly establishes that Shirk kept alcoholic beverages in his personal office during this time. On at least one occasion he shared those with Ms. (Kaylee) Chester and Ms. (Tiffany) Ice."

The grand jury wrote that one of the young women "was targeted for employment by Shirk based on her physical appearance and a photo or social media posting."

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The report quoted an e-card Shirk sent to one female employee that read: "I think if we had sex, there would be very little awkwardness after."

"Shirk's personal relationships with these women reached a boiling point on June 13 of 2013, causing an unpleasant, disruptive and very public confrontation between his wife and Ms. Ice."

According to the documents, the drama in the public defender's office came to a head when Shirk's wife came in, confronted one of the women and accused her of having an affair with her husband.

Shortly after, Chester and a third woman hired by Shirk, Kristal Coggins, were employees of the Whisky River nightclub who had no previous legal experience. Chester, Coggins and Ice were fired in the summer of 2013.

Ice has filed a wrongful termination suit against Shirk.

The grand jury also accused Shirk of mishandling his office's representation of Cristian Fernandez, the then-12-year-old charged with murder in the beating death of his younger half-brother. Jurors concluded that Shirk "seemed to show little attention or care to the case" and noted that Shirk gave out confidential information to a foreign documentary crew doing a story about the Fernandez case.

Later, a group of private attorneys took over Cristian's defense. 

The report also noted that Shirk had a shower built in his private office, even after the city denied his request.

While the report is highly critical of Shirk, the grand jury noted it would not charge him with a violation of the law prohibiting drinking alcohol in a city-owned building because it "would not be a prudent expenditure of public funds to proceed on such a case."

The grand jury requested its report be sent to the Florida Bar and Gov. Scott with a request for Shirk to be removed for a long list of "inexcusable conduct for a public official."

Late Tuesday a spokeswoman for Scott, Jeri Bustamante sent a statement: "With no charges filed, it is for the voters of the 4th judicial circuit to decide who will serve as public defender."

The Florida Bar did not return a returned call asking for a response to the grand jury's recommendations. 

A local law professor, Rod Sullivan said if he were representing Shirk-- he would encourage him to stay and not step down. If he only has the stomach for the lashing in the court of public opinion.

"This is a very damning report. If it came out immediately before the election it could throw the election one way or another. But now he's got time to go ahead and argue to the people that he wasn't represented in the grand jury-- which he wasn't-- that he has evidence that contradicts what the grand jury found, and that they ought to decide to keep him in office,"said Sullivan.

The chairman of the Duval County Democratic Party wasted no time calling for Shirk to step down.

"The grand jury has objectively reviewed the evidence and it is clear that Mr. Shirk must resign his public position immediately to restore good government and public trust to the Public Defender's Office," said Neil Henrichsen.

In a Tuesday morning memo to his staff that was released by his attorney, Shirk wrote, in part: "I have no intention on getting into a public debate with their findings. However, I do want to take this time to express my most sincere apologies to each of you, as I have done with my family. Each of you work too hard and give too much time and effort to once again see your office under a microscope. For that, I am truly sorry." [Read Shirk's full memo]

"With regard to the sexual peccadilloes, which is the most salacious of these charges, we've seen a lot of politicians live through that, Bill Clinton being the primary example. And I think there is a possibility that Matt Shirk can actually live through that, people can say - that's his private life, that doesn't come into my decision on whether to vote for him," said Sullivan.

In his interview with News4Jax, Shirk did he was embarrassed about his behavior.

"Embarrassing for my family, my office. Those are the kinds of things I am remorseful about, that I'm saddened about when I think about all that has come about in this," Shirk said. "My family has forgiven me. My Lord and Savior has forgiven me, and I hope that the citizens of Jacksonville and Clay and Nassau counties will see fit to also forgive me."

Shirk went on to say his office has done some great things in his six years in office and regrets actions he made during the two-month period reviewed by the grand jury.

Shirk said as soon as he learned that consumption of alcohol in the office was against the law, he stopped it.

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