This article was produced in partnership with The Maine Monitor, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
The head of Maine’s agency for defending the poor announced his resignation Wednesday amid mounting criticism of his oversight of attorneys and his handling of finances.
John Pelletier has spent the past decade as the executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, or MCILS, which provides legal defense to those who cannot afford a lawyer. His last day will be Dec.11.
Pelletier delivered the news at a meeting of commissioners appointed in 2019 by Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, to improve MCILS. Pelletier has advised the commissioners for the past 15 months.
“I have believed for some time now that the newly constituted commission should have staff leadership of its own choosing as it works to reform Maine’s system for delivering indigent legal services,” Pelletier said.
Pelletier declined to comment on his resignation when reached by phone on Wednesday.
Pelletier’s resignation and a recent proposal to double the budget of the agency amount to the most sweeping reform of Maine’s unique system for defending the poor since it was created in 2010. Maine is the only state without a public defender system, instead hiring private attorneys who are appointed by judges to represent impoverished people in criminal and legal matters.
MCILS has been repeatedly criticized in recent years for failing to properly ensure the effective defense of the poor. The ACLU of Maine has threatened to sue, and a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization has raised questions over the office’s spending.
An investigation published last month by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica found that Pelletier repeatedly overlooked professional misconduct and criminal convictions when hiring attorneys to represent the state’s poor. This left some defendants and their families to be assigned attorneys who missed court appearances or had felony convictions, court records show. In one case, an attorney approved by Pelletier repeatedly harassed his client for sex while working as her court-appointed defense lawyer.
Pelletier also misled lawmakers and members of the commission regarding his efforts to rein in high-billing attorneys, the joint investigation found. In public statements, Pelletier had brushed off the allegations, saying that there was only an “appearance” of overbilling and that attorneys were correcting billing errors. Most lawyers had actually not responded to Pelletier's questions about their high hours, commission records showed.
Pelletier has declined repeated requests for interviews by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica and has not publicly responded to the organizations’ findings.
Yet another critique may lie ahead. An in-depth government oversight report on the agency’s finances is scheduled to be released on Monday. Pelletier and eight appointed members of the commission met in executive session on Oct. 6 and Oct. 15 to discuss the confidential report and provide a response to its findings.
“This is long-needed change at MCILS,” said Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, who has pushed for increased oversight of the state agency.
Pelletier first offered to resign in August but was asked to remain in his position by Josh Tardy, who was appointed chairman of the commission in 2019.
Tardy declined to say whether he believed that the commission needed a new executive director. He was uncertain that a permanent replacement could be found before the end of the year.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get somebody on-boarded. There could very well be a little bit of a lag in time between his departure date and the on-boarding of a new director,” Tardy said.
Pelletier was selected in 2010 as MCILS’ first executive director, when the state moved public defense out of the judicial branch and into a standalone agency overseen by the Legislature. For the first 10 years of its operation, Pelletier was in charge of a staff of three people responsible for overseeing approximately 26,000 new cases a year.
The commissioners are on the brink of undertaking major reforms to Maine’s public defense system. They have proposed a $35.4 million budget to the governor for next fiscal year to open the state’s first two public defender offices, increase its staff by 10 positions and increase the reimbursement rate of court-appointed attorneys from $60 to $100 per hour — the first raise for public defense attorneys in five years.
“At this point, the new commission is well-established and its recent budget request reflects its desire to move the commission in a new direction. I believe the commission should have the opportunity to select new leadership as it charts that course. Accordingly, I will resign,” Pelletier said.
The change in leadership comes during a critical time for the commission. It must meet a Jan. 8 deadline for the Legislature to consider major rule changes — affecting the number of trials and level of training court-appointed attorneys must have — to ensure the new standards can take effect in 2021. It also must lobby the governor and lawmakers to approve over $17 million of new initiatives in its proposed budget.
The commission unanimously agreed to launch an advisory subcommittee to find the agency’s next executive director. Members for that panel will be announced next week, Tardy said.
Bob LeBrasseur, who works as a court-appointed attorney with MCILS and is a nonvoting member, said he was disappointed that Pelletier was leaving the agency.
“You’ve led us. You started this off, and you’ve done some really great things. I appreciate all the hard work you did, and I know a lot of my fellow attorneys are going to be disappointed by this announcement,” LeBrasseur said.