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A number of women public defense attorneys in Oregon are accusing the agency that manages the state's public defense program of retaliation and pay discrimination based on their gender.

These allegations against the Office of Public Defense Services (OPDS) were outlined in a letter sent by the ACLU of Oregon Wednesday to the Public Defense Services Commission (PDSC), which oversees OPDS. The letter accuses one unidentified male OPDS manager in particular of this retaliation.

"Multiple women defense attorneys have spoken with the ACLU of Oregon about their experiences in the following areas," the letter reads. "(1) that they have faced serious situations of retaliation from OPDS, including multiple situations of retaliation by a leadership-level male employee of OPDS, after the women defense attorneys shared serious concerns about or related to OPDS or this male employee, and (2) concerns about pay equity, i.e., that there appear to be systemic issues of OPDS paying women defense attorneys less pay than male defense attorneys even thought the women defense attorneys are doing comparable work."

The ACLU requested an investigation and audit into the program to remedy these issues and take "corrective actions." The group's letter noted that the women who've raised these issues are wary to come forward with their concerns out of fear of further retaliation.

"It is extremely concerning that attorneys who are versed in the law and vigorous advocates for their clients are expressing significant levels of fear about sharing OPDS-related concerns," the letter reads.

Sandy Chung, director of ACLU of Oregon, said her organization first started hearing these concerns from women public defenders earlier this year. But, Chung explained in an email to the Mercury: "Based on the information we received from the women defense attorneys, it appears that these situations of retaliation have been happening for the past couple years. and pay inequity for a long time."

"When we learned of this situation, it was clear to us that something had to be done," Chung continued. "Public defense is really important for all Oregonians, and when public defense isn’t working well, it has disproportionately harmful impacts on BIPOC, low-income, and other marginalized communities who are overrepresented in our criminal justice systems."

OPDS made headlines in June for announcing a $4 million budget deficit, which had kept the agency from paying contractors. While agreeing to replenish OPDS' budget in July, the state legislature also threatened to withhold $100 million in future funds unless OPDS undergoes a financial audit to overhaul its faulty business model.

The mandate follows the resignation of OPDS' director Lane Borg. Borg left the agency in March 2021 after facing numerous complaints for the way he managed finances—both at the state and as the previous head of Metropolitan Public Defender. Ed Jones, a retired Multnomah County Circuit Court judge, is currently serving as OPDS' interim director.