Nine years after former Public Defender Matt Shirk’s many foibles first came to light, the Florida Supreme Court has taken action to discipline him, suspending his law license for a year.
The court’s decision stemmed from a Florida Bar investigation that began January 2017, when Shirk left office. A judge found Shirk had violated six of the Florida Bar’s rules for lawyers while in office.
Shirk must close his law firm within 30 days. Shirk can ask to be reinstated as a lawyer in one year, but a judge could still reject that reinstatement if the judge deems Shirk unfit to practice law.
The one-year suspension is the most significant consequence yet for the disgraced former public defender.
During his trial over the discipline, Shirk pointed to delays as a mitigating factor.
“I wanted this matter to be over in 2017, but the Bar wanted to wait until the ethics commission completed its case, so it’s dragged on for five years now. … It’s impacted our family. It’s an emotional thing. I’m ready to put this behind me and my family and move on and have a life.”
Shirk has not yet responded to a request for comment by The Tributary.
A group of 11 lawyers, including former Florida Bar president Hank Coxe, filed the Bar complaint against Shirk. On Friday, Coxe said by email the “final decisions regarding discipline are the prerogative of The Florida Bar and Supreme Court, not us.”
Voters kicked Shirk out of office in 2017 by a wide margin. Before they did, his tenure sparked two criminal investigations, a grand jury, an ethics commission, the auditor general and the Florida Bar, all following a series of reports in The Florida Times-Union that revealed how Shirk had abused his office.
He violated attorney-client privilege in the case of Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old facing the potential of life in prison if convicted of murdering his brother.
He hired women based on their physical appearance and sent sexual messages to at least two of them before his wife demanded he fire them.
He used public funds to install a shower in his private office without approval, and then he invited the women to shower with him.
He drank at work and was accused of deleting public records.
After losing re-election, he fired those seen as disloyal and gave significant pay raises to political allies in the office.
Shirk first ran for the office in 2008, the first time in history that anyone had challenged any of Jacksonville’s elected public defenders. At the time, he’d never handled a homicide case and had only eight years of legal experience. His campaign centered on making the election as partisan as possible, tying his opponent to then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and promising to never question police officers’ integrity.
Once in office, he fired the most experienced attorneys, misspelling some of their names in his termination email.
In 2011, the case of Cristian Fernandez led to international outrage over the idea of charging a 12-year-old as an adult in a first-degree murder case. The city’s top attorneys from the private sector volunteered to help Shirk, and eventually, the other attorneys took over the case. A judge even issued a gag order to stop Shirk from talking about it to the media — something he’d been doing frequently.
Shirk told a French documentary crew details Fernandez had shared with him, a violation of attorney-client privilege.
In 2013, he hired three women based on their physical appearance. One was the girlfriend of the head of the police union. Another was a bartender at a Hooters-style establishment. The third was a ring girl at a boxing match whose picture he found on Facebook; he then ordered his chief investigator to track her down and hire her, according to the later investigations.
At work, he repeatedly sent two of them sexual messages, sending one that said, “I think if we had sex there would be very minimal awkwardness afterwards.” He took another on out-of-town work trips and frequent lunch and coffee dates.
After his wife found the messages, he fired the women.
After losing his re-election bid in 2016, he used $90,000 in public funds to hire a lobbying firm that had donated money to his campaign. He fired four employees believed to prefer his opponent, and he gave substantial raises to political allies, in some cases doubling their salaries. He gave away nine of the office’s guns to a motorcycle club. He spent thousands of taxpayer dollars traveling to law conferences, including an immigration-law clinic even though public defenders don’t handle immigration law. (After leaving office, he began practicing immigration law.)
He also removed hard drives from computers in what his successor, Public Defender Charlie Cofer, later called a “concerted effort by the prior administration to delete emails and other documents in violation of public records laws.”
The state also paid for Shirk’s personal fuel usage, and he had the state cover the costs when he crashed into a BMW in a parking lot.
Both criminal investigations into Shirk ended with prosecutors not filing charges, though a grand jury called on then-Gov. Rick Scott to remove Shirk from office, something the former governor declined to do.
The ethics commission and Gov. Ron DeSantis later ordered Shirk to pay a $6,000 fine. Yet Shirk falsely told the judge overseeing his Florida Bar discipline case that DeSantis had never signed the order.
A state auditor report also found Shirk had violated state laws and procedures and used his staff attorneys to volunteer at his own nonprofit.