IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — David Hawkins is the kind of client that Iowa public defender Michael Adams would typically be appointed to represent, as he’s facing a burglary charge that could land him in prison for years.
But Adams, who supervises the special defense unit of the State Public Defender’s Office, isn’t defending Hawkins. He’s the police officer who arrested him.
Since 2008, Adams has worked as a part-time reserve police officer for the city of Colfax while also holding his full-time job at the public defender’s office — a potential conflict of interest that has gone largely unnoticed.
Adams’ unit, which handles complex criminal cases statewide, is routinely appointed to defend clients in Jasper County even as he occasionally patrols one of its cities as an officer. In fact, the unit was appointed to represent Hawkins in an unrelated case three months before Adams arrested him in the burglary, an Associated Press review of court records shows.
Multiple defense attorneys told the AP that they were stunned to learn that a high-ranking public defender was allowed to moonlight as a police officer.
“This is kind of like the fox guarding the hen house,” said Des Moines lawyer Dean Stowers.
The conflict burst into public view this month in a murder case involving 51-year-old Jeffrey Stendrup, who is charged in the beating death of a man at a Colfax home last year. Since last year, Stendrup has been represented by lawyers from the unit that Adams supervises. Meanwhile, Adams’ fellow officers in the Colfax Police Department were involved in investigating Stendrup and are potential prosecution witnesses at his upcoming trial.
Stendrup wasn’t informed about the potential conflict of interest until this month, days after AP started making inquiries. His lawyers from Adams’ special defense unit, Christopher Welch and Jill Eimermann, told a judge during an Aug. 19 hearing that they only recently learned of their boss’ side job as an officer in Colfax, a city of roughly 2,100 about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of Des Moines.
Adams said he doesn’t view his two roles as a conflict of interest because he, personally, hasn’t been involved in defending suspects arrested by the Colfax Police Department or other police agencies in Jasper County. He said his role as a supervisor for attorneys who represent such clients consists largely of approving or denying their expense requests for things such as hiring expert witnesses.
He said an ethics review conducted by one of his subordinates this month concluded that his unit could continue to represent defendants against charges involving Colfax as long as he’s not involved on either side of the case. But he said that going forward, his unit will recuse itself from Colfax cases.
Not everyone believes that will solve the ethics concerns.
Tricia Bushnell, who heads the Midwest Innocence Project, which has partnered with the public defender’s office in investigating potential wrongful convictions, said Adams’ side job poses a number of potential conflicts of interest.
“I don’t know how a defendant and attorney could build the trust necessary for an effective defense if the client knows their attorney also arrests people and testifies against them. How could that client ever feel comfortable alleging misconduct against the police?” she said.
Adams routinely defends clients charged with violent crimes around the state. He said that to avoid conflict in Jasper County, he limits his work there to defending accused “sexually violent predators” from the state’s efforts to have them locked up for treatment after their prison sentences expire. He said he puts in about 16 hours per month as a Colfax police officer and only occasionally writes citations, makes arrests and testifies.
City records show that most of his police work has been as an unpaid volunteer, but that he makes $15 per hour when covering an occasional shift. He earned $122,000 at his public defender job last year.
“It’s a way of helping, a way of giving back. It benefits me personally,” Adams said of his police work. “I think it makes me a better lawyer and I think my skills as a lawyer make me better at that position.”
But this month, Adams’ dual roles have complicated the case of Stendrup, who is charged with first-degree murder in the June 2018 killing of 38-year-old Jeremy McDowell. Police say Stendrup was angry at McDowell over an alleged theft, confronted him at a Colfax home and beat him with a baseball bat. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
Stendrup’s attorneys said during the Aug. 19 hearing that Adams had no role investigating Stendrup and had not been involved in his defense. Stendrup agreed to waive any claim of a conflict for now and to continue being represented by the special defense unit. But the issue could resurface later. His alleged accomplice, Jaycie Sheeder, has said she got a bat to defend herself against Hawkins, the man that Adams arrested this month in an unrelated case.
Stowers, who represents Sheeder, said the conflict should have been disclosed to Stendrup earlier and noted that Stendrup didn’t receive independent legal advice when deciding to waive it. He predicted it could be an issue on appeal if he’s convicted.