Emerson's employees in, defenders out of courthouse

Friday, December 9, 2005

The director of the public defender's Eastern District says he has no problem with the change.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson's staff in Cape Girardeau likely will move into the new federal courthouse next year, squeezing out the federal public defender's office tentatively slated to move into the $50 million building.

The General Services Administration, which oversees construction and operation of federal buildings, says it would prefer to house a congressional office in the new courthouse rather than the public defender's office because the congressional office poses fewer security concerns.

Jim Ogden, GSA's deputy regional administrator in Kansas City, said the public defender's office would need a separate secured entrance and access to the courthouse after normal business hours.

"We have an opportunity to have a more fitting tenant in here," Ogden said Thursday of locating Emerson's office in the building.

Emerson early on had no plans to move her staff from the Federal Building at 339 Broadway. But she changed her mind within the past six months, requesting space in the new building now under construction.

In addition to the federal court clerks and judges, the courthouse will house federal prosecutors and the U.S. Marshal's office.

Lee Lawless, acting director of the public defender's Eastern District office in St. Louis, said his agency doesn't mind being left out of the new building.

"I am not upset about this," said Lawless, who only learned of the office space change from an official in the national public defender's office in Washington last week. "I kind of view this as an opportunity."

Lawless said the public defender office's clients and witnesses don't want to come to a courthouse.

"There is a large enough problem with some clients who believe you are working for the government rather than them. When you have to go through a metal detector to go to your lawyer's office, it doesn't help the relationship," he said.

Lawless said the public defender's office never asked to be in the new building. He said his agency was included to meet GSA occupancy requirements associated with constructing a new courthouse.

It was estimated that the federal court and other judicial-related agencies would employ nearly 100 people in the new courthouse.

The public defender's office was expected to have about 4,000 square feet of space in the new courthouse or more than double its current office space on Broadway.

Lawless said the GSA will continue to provide office space for his agency either at the current office at 440 Broadway or elsewhere. The office currently has two full-time attorneys and one investigator.

Lloyd Smith, Emerson's chief of staff, said the GSA offered to lease space for a congressional office in the new four-story courthouse at the same cost as the current rent in the Federal Building.

That offer helped convince Emerson that she should relocate her office.

In addition to the right price, Smith said the congresswoman also believes the new courthouse will provide more secure and earthquake-resistant office space.

Smith said Emerson and her staff must consider security needs in dealing with the threat of terrorism.

The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the subsequent terrorist attacks on the East Coast have made security a top priority, Smith said.

Emerson has toured the courthouse now under construction on Independence Street just west of city hall.

Smith said the congressional office needs 1,200 to 1,500 square feet of space. One possible location is the northwest corner of the main floor of the courthouse, he said.

But when it comes to allocating office space, the decision rests with the GSA, Smith said.

"We are not trying to hurt anybody," Smith said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, ext. 123

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