The Office of the State Public Defender named Rhonda Schaffer as its director in an announcement Tuesday.
Schaffer, a Helena native, was most recently the centralized services administrator for the Governor’s Office where she was involved in policy, communications, financial management and strategic planning. Schaffer does not have a law degree, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Administration, which oversaw the hiring process.
As director, Schaffer will be responsible for continuing implementation of a package of bills passed during the 2017 legislative session to reform the Office of the State Public Defender.
A task force was assembled after the 2015 session to address existing budgetary and operational problems. That task force produced seven bills. While not all made it through in their original form, the primary goals of the task force were to address leadership issues and budgetary concerns.
The bills, including one to hire a director, were passed with bipartisan support. Before the session started, a financial audit revealed OPD was short $3.5 million and found the office was unable to assess or collect money owed by defendants. Shortly afterward, chief administrator Scott Cruse, as well as Richard Gillespie, chairman of the Public Defender Commission, resigned.
Before the legislative session, there were department leaders in all three divisions of OPD with oversight from the Public Defender Commission. Now Schaffer will oversee the entire agency and the commission will become advisory. Schaffer will take over for Harry Freebourn, who has served as interim director since July 2017.
“My career has been devoted to public service and I am very excited to work with the public defender team,” Schaffer said in a statement. “I look forward to providing the best possible client services while efficiently managing taxpayer’s dollars.”
Before working in the governor’s office, Schaffer previously served as chief financial officer for Family Outreach Inc. and as an administrator at the Department of Corrections.
The law to hire a director to oversee the entire organization stipulated that the Department of Administration hire for the position.
John Lewis, director of the Department of Administration, thanked Freebourn in a statement for coming out of retirement as an administrative director at OPD to lead the department until someone was hired permanently.