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November 17, 2023

CT public defenders’ DEI director suspended for social media post

CLOE POISSON / CT MIRROR Daryl McGraw was co-chair of the state’s Police Transparency and Accountability task force and founder of Formerly Inc, a criminal justice consulting company that develops innovative reentry strategies for former prison inmates and their families to help with the reintegration process.

Connecticut’s Division of Public Defender Services on Thursday moved to suspend its diversity, equity and inclusion director — a day after the union representing public defenders called on the official’s resignation over a social media post it perceived as inappropriate and misogynistic.

Chief Public Defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis notified Daryl McGraw of his immediate suspension following a directive Thursday morning from Richard Palmer, the chairperson of the commission overseeing the division. 

McGraw’s suspension will remain in effect until the commission has time to review the situation at or before its scheduled meeting early next month, according to an email sent from Palmer to Bowden-Lewis and reviewed by The Connecticut Mirror. Palmer and Bowden-Lewis declined to comment further. 

In an interview with the CT Mirror, McGraw said he respected the commission’s and Bowden-Lewis’ decision and that he never intended for his Facebook post to make women in the division feel disrespected.

“It was a poor decision on my part because I didn’t think about the broader audience. Knowing my role, I could have done something different,” said McGraw, adding that he didn’t remember when the now-deleted post was first published. “I’m very fortunate to work with really intelligent, powerful women who do some really amazing things for people from my community. So it was upsetting that I offended them.”

McGraw said the Facebook post was for an initiative by a friend of his called “Paper Chaser Academy,” promoted to his own social media following as a training that would provide information on “financial wellness, money mastery, and legal business ownership” to former street hustlers.

McGraw, who is formerly incarcerated, attached a photo to the post, showing him posing in a bathroom mirror, with a caption that says, “Clubbing is for youngsters. Grown women want to travel, eat well, and get bent over the balconies.” The caption was similar to others on social media in recent years where people joked about their desire to live a lavish lifestyle away from the stressors of everyday life.

On Wednesday, the public defenders’ union condemned McGraw’s posting and his “degradation of women.” The group also called for his resignation.

“We do not condone demeaning actions or communications towards any marginalized groups. It is unacceptable for anyone, and especially someone with Mr. McGraw’s title, to say things that perpetuate any of these victimizations,” the union said in a statement.

“The union supports a DEI program. We understand that the Division of Public Defender Services must work to eradicate such behavior within our own agency,” the statement said. “However, we cannot accept the head of the DEI program, the person who is supposed to guide us through this process, engaging in such behavior himself.”

McGraw said on Thursday that he hasn’t yet thought about resigning. But he also said that he found it “interesting” that the union called for his departure and not others previously engaged in misconduct against employees of color. He did not specify who he was talking about.

McGraw’s suspension and the calls for his stepping down follow years of turmoil in the division that has seemingly shifted public focus farther away from its mandate to serve poor and low-income residents. Much of the dispute has instead centered on internal conflict over the direction of the agency of more than 400 employees, which was magnified by the appointment in 2022 of Bowden-Lewis, the state’s first Black chief public defender.

Last month, the DPDS commission took the rare step of issuing a letter of reprimand to Bowden-Lewis, claiming that she has failed to address plummeting morale, has levied unfounded allegations of racial discrimination against agency personnel and has not complied with directives.

Before the reprimand letter, most members of the commission that appointed Bowden-Lewis had resigned. Emails from employees surfaced suggesting racism in the division. Some attorneys blamed her for what they described as a toxic work environment and inadequate responses to the needs of those in the courtroom. At public meetings, other lawyers questioned both her credibility and integrity.

In her first interview addressing the claims this summer, Bowden-Lewis said she remained committed to her three-prong vision to improve recruitment and retention to diversify staff, rebrand the division through community engagement and revitalize the agency to ensure workers feel valued.

The top public defender also said that she didn’t see her goals and providing adequate courtroom representation as mutually exclusive.

As for her treatment by some in the division, notably the previous commission members who resigned, Bowden-Lewis said there were “some situations that did not follow precedent and did not meet what has been the standard.”

Many of her supporters in the division, including McGraw, said the problems brought to light had existed long before the start of Bowden-Lewis’ tenure. They also said they observed significant differences in how Bowden-Lewis, a Black woman, was being treated compared to her predecessor, current Superior Court Judge Christine Perra Rapillo, a white woman.

McGraw, who has served on state committees on police accountability and correctional oversight, was hired early last year during Rapillo’s tenure. The agency’s staff was 70% white in several departments, and claims of racial discrimination had surfaced in previous years. McGraw’s hire reflected somewhat of an acknowledgement by the agency that change was imminent.

But some employees’ growing frustrations with how the current administration is going about ensuring racial equity have led to the recent chaos.

The commission is currently investigating an incident involving McGraw and attorney Joseph Lopez, a public defender who has worked for the agency for nearly three decades. Lopez, who is Hispanic, has accused McGraw, who is Black, of making derogatory comments about his racial identity. 

Prior to his suspension on Thursday, McGraw emailed an apology to the entire division for his Facebook post. In his interview with the CT Mirror, he said the social media post was meant to inspire Black and Hispanic people in his community. 

However, he said the responses to his apology by some of his colleagues were “offensive and in line with hate.” He declined to expand on the specific content of the responses, though he did indicate that some were in line with messaging that he “go back to where” he came from. 

“The suspension, I understand, because there were some people that were offended,” McGraw said. “But what I will say is that … we have a bigger problem than just a Facebook post on a personal page.”

The DPDS commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 5, where members are expected to discuss the matter. 

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