For the first time in nearly three decades, Hernando voters will help decide who will lead the 5th Circuit Public Defender's Office.
After 32 years in office, Howard "Skip" Babb Jr. is retiring from the post, which oversees the administrative operations in Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties. Babb hasn't faced opposition since 1984.
Two private attorneys want to succeed him as public defender, a job that currently pays about $150,000 a year.
Mike Graves has been a private-practice criminal defense attorney since 1990, but the Leesburg resident is emphasizing earlier bullet points on his resume, including five years as Babb's chief assistant in the late 1980s.
Milan "Bo" Samargya started his career with a short stint as an assistant public defender, but the Brooksville resident is also highlighting his time as a prosecutor for state attorney's offices in Orlando and Inverness.
Both candidates are Republicans and there is no Democrat in the race, so all voters can cast a ballot in the primary.
The Public Defender's Office represents indigent people charged with crimes and has roughly 140 employees and an annual budget of more than $7 million.
For Graves, a win would mean the chance to transform an office that he says is due for change.
Graves arrived there in 1984 after two years as an assistant public defender in Clearwater. He was 27 when he defended his first murder case as the lead attorney in Judge L.R. Hufstettler's Brooksville courtroom.
In 1985, Babb tapped Graves to be his chief assistant, responsible for managing all five of the county offices. Graves said he left five years later when his vision for how to run those offices began to diverge from Babb's. He also wanted to try his hand in private practice, where he has remained for the last 22 years.
Currently president and managing partner of Graves & Spivey P.A. in Tavares, Graves has defended clients in some 250 jury trials and 15 death penalty cases.
Graves calls Babb a friend, and Babb has donated to his former employee's campaign and publicly endorsed him.
Graves is blunt, though, about why he now wants to lead the office. He described Babb's management style as "laissez faire." Graves said he would take a more active role.
"I think I can do a better job for the taxpayers than Skip has been doing for a while," he said.
There are several ways the office can improve, he said.
Attorneys need to do a better job identifying cases that can be resolved quickly through plea agreements or the pretrial intervention program, Graves said.
Once those cases are identified, defense attorneys need to work with prosecutors to make that happen. The Lake and Marion offices, for example, have attorneys that specialize in early intervention, Graves noted, but Hernando does not.
Graves also said he would pair up veteran lawyers with younger attorneys in the Public Defender's Office as part of a mentoring program.
Graves said his sense from the outside is that a "high percentage" of attorneys in the five offices do a great job. But he has also heard concerns about work ethic.
"Some people have gotten a little too comfortable," he said.
If elected, Graves said he plans to personally evaluate attorneys in the office. He vows to check how long cases are taking to resolve, and he will talk to other lawyers and judges.
Graves has two blemishes on his Florida Bar record, and Samargya has latched on to them.
The first came in 1998, when Graves failed to respond to queries from the bar regarding grievances made by a client. Attorneys are required to file official responses when a client complains. He was admonished by the bar for the minor misconduct and put on probation for one year.
In 2004, Graves committed the same offense. He was suspended from practicing law for 30 days.
Graves called the first offense a "time management issue." He said he was operating a one-man law firm and, at the same time, his father was dying.
"I left it and just didn't get it done," he said.
He acknowledged the second incident was more problematic. He called himself "stubborn and foolish" by putting off the response to the bar, but noted that in neither case did the bar conclude that his clients' complaints had merit.
He says he uses the mistakes as a learning tool when he counsels young attorneys, and he criticized Samargya for overblowing the issue.
"If that truly spoke to my fitness to serve in this office, then it would beg the question why I've been endorsed by Skip Babb, who knows a little about me and what it takes to do the job, and by (State Attorney) Brad King," he said.
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Samargya didn't stay long in the Public Defender's Office in the 18th Circuit, but he says he has always had a passion for criminal defense.
After about six months and 20 jury trials, he moved on to the State Attorney's Office in Orlando, where he stayed for two years and was responsible for the felony and misdemeanor trial dockets. In 1998, he opened his own practice in that city, specializing in defense, title insurance and estate planning.
After about four years, he was back at a state attorney's office, this time in Inverness. He stayed two years, then returned to private practice as senior partner at Grant and Samargya. He is currently senior partner at Robitaille & Samargya in Inverness.
Samargya said he started in May to consider a bid for the office of public defender when Babb announced his retirement. As the filing deadline neared and no one had jumped in to challenge Graves, Samargya decided to go for it.
Samargya, who has twice applied for circuit judgeships in recent years, says his experience on both sides of the courtroom aisle make him the superior candidate.
"I want to give the citizens of the 5th District a choice instead of just having somebody walk in," he said. "I think I bring something to the table in terms of leadership in my background, both as a defense attorney and as a prosecutor."
One of his top goals, he said, would be to cut whatever fat might exist in the office's budget. But there is also a way to bring in at least some revenue, he said.
If a case is resolved through a plea or trial, public defenders should ask judges to order a lien to make sure clients pay defense fees allowed by law. For a misdemeanor case, it could be $200; for a felony case $500, he said.
Like Graves, Samargya said he would focus on bolstering professionalism in the Public Defender's Office. Attorneys should dress the part, he said, and put in a full week's work.
He also supports a mentoring program for young lawyers, and says the office can save money by tapping senior citizens and college students for an intern program.
"You have to put some things in place to make sure you're running effectively and efficiently," he said.
He says he has a good rapport with King, despite a flap in 2006 when King put in place an evidence policy that Samargya and his law partner at the time said was aimed at their firm as retribution for allegations of misconduct they lodged against King's prosecutors. The partners threatened to sue, but the dispute was ultimately resolved out of court.
Samargya makes no apologies for pointing to Graves' bar history, especially the second incident.
"The bottom line is it wasn't a mistake, because he had already been admonished and put on probation previously for that same conduct," he said. "I don't have any baggage behind me."
He points to endorsements from Citrus Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, state Sen. Mike Fasano and state Reps. Rob Schenck, Jimmie T. Smith and Richard Corcoran, among others.
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Both men acknowledged that much of the job is administrative oversight. But both said they will still make time to, as Samargya put it, "get out on the front line" and continue to try cases.
"I think that's the way you stay fresh," Graves said.
Graves has invested heavily in his own campaign. By July 20, he had brought in $110,000 in cash, but at least $51,000 of that was his own money, according to campaign finance records.
Samargya loaned his campaign about $27,000 of the $38,524.59 he had raised as of July 20.