NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - The chief public defender at the Orleans Public Defenders Office, Derwyn Bunton, said he was shocked to find out one of his attorneys, Ashley Crawford, wasn’t licensed to practice law in Louisiana.
“I was perplexed at how this could happen and I’m really surprised,” Bunton. said. “We then notified everyone. We pulled Ms. Crawford out of court, and she is no longer a staff attorney in our office."
Crawford graduated from Loyola University’s law school in 2016. According to Bunton, she passed the law portion of the bar exam, but failed the ethics section. Bunton said Crawford was officially fired Tuesday (June 25).
Bunton said when hiring an attorney, his office requires documentation called a “certification of good standing” to show that the person is an attorney.
“The documentation we had, we believed she was eligible to practice law in Louisiana. And it turned out, in our administrative check, that we did not have the documentation we needed,” Bunton said.
However, it is still unclear what documentation Crawford provided to the Public Defenders Office at the time she was hired in September 2018.
Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said he doesn’t believe the Public Defenders Office properly vetted Crawford before they hired her.
“This is very serious business. The Public Defender’s Office should have a very specific protocol on the type of documentation that is necessary, and I just don’t believe that they had it because it doesn’t exist,” Friedman said. “I have yet to hear from the Public Defender [with] a very specific statement about the type of documentation they require and what they received from her."
Bunton, though, said nothing like this has happened before and pointed out it was discovered when his office did a yearly check with the Supreme Court to make sure all Public Defenders were in good standing with the Supreme Court.
“If they had done exactly that same review when she was hired, they would have found the same information because it didn’t change,” Friedman said.
Still, Bunton said they’re relieved the mistake was handled before things got worse.
“At the same time, I was happy that the controls we had in place did catch this before it was something that could have really spread far and wide,” Bunton said.
The DA’s office, though, said it’s learned Crawford falsely represented clients in more than 100 cases in all 12 sections of Criminal District Court. Now, the District Attorney’s Office is criminally investigating Crawford.
“It’s not only a danger to her, but all of those cases are going to have to be reviewed, and some of them, if not all of them, are going to have to be re-tried if the DA decides to do that. This is very serious business,” Friedman said.
Friedman said he also expects to see civil lawsuits against the Public Defenders Office. Bunton, though, said his biggest concern right now is for Crawford.
“I worry about her future more than I worry about his organization. We’re not going anywhere, and I think we’ve proven that we are transparent, diligent and we’re an organization that adheres to the highest standard,” Bunton said.
Bunton said their office will cooperate fully with the DA’s investigation.