It wasn’t even 24 hours after Corbin Brewster had been appointed as Tulsa County’s chief public defender when the mood at the office he would soon lead turned sour.
Some employees, stinging from Brewster’s surprise appointment Sept. 7 to lead the Public Defender’s Office, left early to go to a bar. Others stayed in the office, but said it was impossible to focus on work.
“No one got their minds back on their caseloads,” one public defender told The Frontier. “It was like a wake at work.”
Last week The Frontier spoke to six employees of the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office in the wake of Brewster’s appointment. All of the employees, who were granted anonymity because they feared retribution for speaking publicly about the appointment, expressed frustration about several issues: Brewster’s relative lack of trial experience; his lack of managerial experience; and his law firm’s (Brewster & DeAngelis’) close ties to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office and the Tulsa Jail.
“It was like just a month ago he (Brewster) was in court defending the jail, and now he’s supposed to be defending the people who are in the jail,” one attorney said. “Can someone who is so closely aligned with the Sheriff’s Office really defend people who are housed in the jail?”
About 40 attorneys work inside the public defender’s office.
Brewster and his father, Clark Brewster, have worked for years to defend the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations at the jail, including the Elliott Williams case earlier this year in which TCSO was hit with a $10 million judgment.
In 2015, a defense team that included Brewster and his father defended former TCSO reserve deputy Robert Bates, who was eventually sentenced to four years in prison for first-degree manslaughter. He remains one of the only law enforcement officers in the nation to go to prison for an on-duty shooting.
“One problem he’s going to have coming into our office is that we’re all angry about how this happened,” said another attorney. “We don’t think he deserves this position, and he’s going to have to come in and earn our respect. He’s not just going to come in and have it. We think of ourselves as being on the front lines. He’s going to have to earn it from us.”
Many of the attorneys expressed frustration that Stuart Southerland, who served as interim chief public defender after Rob Nigh stepped down for health reasons earlier this year, wasn’t tabbed to lead the agency.
Southerland had been a candidate when Nigh — whom all the attorneys The Frontier interviewed praised as an outstanding leader — took over in 2015. Nigh also was employed at Brewster & DeAngelis before becoming chief public defender.
“I think we all hoped Stuart would get it,” said another attorney. “He is a man who will ride his bicycle to the courthouse to bring you something you forgot to take.”
“The attorneys here were 100 percent on board with Stuart,” another attorney said. “We let the judges know what we wanted and that didn’t happen.”
Attorneys said that many inside the Public Defender’s Office emailed Tulsa County District Court judges, who were responsible for the appointment, to voice their support for Southerland.
“It was a slap in the face to Stuart, it really was,” one attorney said. “Maybe Corbin is going to do a great job, maybe not. But he didn’t earn it. Stuart did. He’s been here like 15 years, in the trenches, fighting with all of us, and he just got slapped in the face. We all did.”
“We’re all really pissed about the way the judges treated Stuart,” another attorney said. “We’re mad, but Stuart, he’ll handle it with class because that’s who he is. He’s better than I am, or better than I would be in his situation.”
Others questioned why Brewster, who has indigent defense experience through the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, would leave his lucrative position at Brewster & De Angelis.
“This is not a launching pad,” one attorney told The Frontier. “You don’t come here and then go from here to something greater. You work here because you really believe in the work. You don’t come here and then become a judge, or a politician.”
Brewster, who is expected to begin work at the Public Defender’s Office on Oct. 1, did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Frontier.
‘Like a funeral’
After the shock of Brewster’s appointment wore off, much of the ire inside the Public Defender’s Office was directed toward the judges who gave the 35-year-old attorney the job, and the process by which he was selected.
“On Friday (the day after Brewster’s appointment), it was more like a funeral,” one attorney said. “Now we’re adjusting.”
Many attorneys were critical of the secrecy surrounding the appointment, saying that unlike in years past, the job was never opened for applications. Instead, the belief is that a “headhunting” committee of local attorneys — some with deep ties to the Brewsters — identified Corbin Brewster as a leading candidate.
The specifics surrounding the appointment process are vague and will likely remain so. Judges, who are tasked with selecting the chief public defender, are exempt from much of the Oklahoma Open Records Act. A request for emails, memos and sign-in sheets for the monthly judges meetings was denied by Court Administrator Vickie Cox.
And just as Brewster declined to be interviewed, so did one of the attorneys believed to be on the committee that selected him to be the county’s next chief public defender.
Presiding District Judge Rebecca Nightingale also declined an interview request last week, citing an ongoing jury trial she was involved in. Later requests by The Frontier received no response.
“No applications were accepted and it was never open,” one attorney told The Frontier. “They identified four or five people, and eventually it came down to Stuart and Corbin. We all felt like it was a formality at that point.”
One attorney referred to the job hunt as “a sham,” while another called it “a purchased position.”
One attorney, who declared a deep knowledge of the process for selecting the chief public defender, called the way the appointment played out “highly unusual.”
That attorney said that following Nigh’s announcement last summer that he was resigning, word spread that the judges felt the best approach would be a slow replacement process that might lead to Southerland’s taking over the job full time.
Instead, the committee was formed and ultimately Brewster was selected.
“We (the lawyers at the Public Defender’s Office) were not consulted at all about this, to my knowledge,” the attorney said. “They never asked if we thought it was a good idea or not.”
Many of the attorneys expressed a belief that not all of the judges attended the meeting at which Brewster was selected, and that if they had, the outcome might have been different.
“I’m not sure why you would do the vote without all the judges there,” one attorney told The Frontier. “Maybe it’s a conspiracy theory on my part, but we’ve all heard that it was an extremely close vote.
“But the decision is ultimately up to the judges, and there’s no requirement for them to explain their decision or for it to be a public process. Whatever the reason the judges have for their decision, they did it, and they know we’re pissed about it.”
In a statement Brewster released following his appointment, he said he was “humbled and honored” to return to indigent defense and that he looked forward to bringing his “experience and enthusiasm” to the office.
In the release he credited Nigh and said he hoped to “preserve the positive momentum” Nigh had achieved there during his tenure.
Nigh, reached for comment last week, said the office will “be in good shape,” under Brewster’s leadership.
“They really couldn’t have gotten someone better,” Nigh said. “He’s good. You couldn’t have gotten a better appointment.”
Nigh said that any public defenders with a negative opinion toward Brewster should take a “wait–and-see” approach.
“If they don’t like him, or they don’t think he’ll do a good job, they’re wrong,” he said. “They’re just wrong.”