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Buffalo lawyer Robert Fogg put forward for vote for public defender 

click to enlarge Monroe County Legislature President Sabrina LaMar, right, announced that she would refer Buffalo-based criminal defense lawyer Robert Fogg, left, to legislators as the next county public defender.

PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA

Monroe County Legislature President Sabrina LaMar, right, announced that she would refer Buffalo-based criminal defense lawyer Robert Fogg, left, to legislators as the next county public defender.

The president of the Monroe County Legislature on Wednesday announced that a selection committee had chosen Robert Fogg, a Buffalo-based criminal defense attorney, to fill the vacant post of county public defender, setting up a potential confirmation battle with legislators.

Confirming the next public defender requires approval by a simple majority in the 29-member Legislature.

But even as the president, Sabrina LaMar, called on legislators to confirm Fogg, it was unclear whether she had the votes to make that happen. She declined to answer whether she had the support of a majority of legislators, saying only that she had discussed the matter with each.

“I believe that the legislators will do what’s right in this situation,” LaMar said, flanked by Fogg and a handful of their supporters during a news conference in the Legislature chambers.

The naming of a new public defender, whose office represents thousands of people who have been accused of crimes and cannot afford a lawyer, has been a protracted process fraught with backroom politicking and backbiting.

The search, which was led by a seven-member committee, was whittled down to two candidates three months ago — Fogg and Julie Cianca, a senior assistant public defender in Monroe County.

But LaMar, who selected five of the seven people on the committee, had yet to announce a candidate or put them to a vote until now. In announcing Fogg as the candidate, LaMar said he was the unanimous choice of the committee, which included a former judge, attorneys, and clergy.

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Democrats, who ostensibly hold a single-seat majority in the Legislature, have said that they are united behind Cianca and have support from Republicans. But LaMar, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans to effectively give the GOP the majority, has publicly expressed her preference for Fogg.

A native of New York City, Fogg relocated to Buffalo in 1981 to pursue an undergraduate degree. He graduated from the University at Buffalo Law School in 1996, according to the biography on his law firm’s website. He is also a conflict defender in Niagara County, which requires him to take cases for indigent defendants when their public defender has a conflict of interest.

“The Public Defender’s Office is an important office,” Fogg said. “It’s one that should be run with integrity through and through. It should be independent of political pressure and it should be an advocate for the people. Not only the people that are its clients, but for the people who exist in the community today and tomorrow.”

He added: “It will be the job of the Public Defender’s Office to advocate for the proper administration of law in the name of justice. This is something that I hope that I will be able to bring to Monroe County.”

LaMar lauded Fogg as an outsider committed to legal justice who is untainted by the office’s internal politics. She also made much of Fogg, who is Black, becoming what she mistakenly said would be the first person of color to lead the office.

“I say to my colleagues, ‘Where do you stand?’” Lamar said. “Will you stand on the right side of history today? Will you stand on the side that puts people above politics? Will you help me depoliticize the public defender’s office? Will you be the Legislature that appoints the first person of color to lead this office?”

“I’m asking the Monroe County Legislature to stand with me and do the right thing on behalf of the people of this county,” she went on.

In fact, Monroe County’s first public defender, Charles Willis, was Black. When a reporter pointed out that Willis was the first public defender of color, LaMar said she had never heard of him.

Moments before the announcement, the Democratic caucus of the Legislature issued a statement suggesting that LaMar was sowing “confusion” in the selection process, and reinforced the law that indicates the final appointment rests with legislators.

“We look forward to exercising our right to vote as duly elected legislators and represent the constituents which we serve,” the Democratic caucus leader, Yversha Roman, said in the statement. “Anything future is political strong-arming that undermines democracy.”

It was unclear Wednesday when the matter might go to a vote.

LaMar said the Legislature could take it up at its next scheduled meeting in the second week in August. But she also hinted that she could force her colleagues to consider it sooner by introducing the measure as a “matter of urgency.”

The Public Defender’s Office has been without a full-time chief since Tim Donaher resigned last year. Eric Teifke, an assistant public defender, has been leading the office in an acting capacity.

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@wxxi.org.
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