By Mark Waite
Nye County commissioners Friday voted 4-1 to split up the $550,000 public defender contract held by Gibson & Kuehn law firm into individual contracts. The board left it up to County Manager Pam Webster to decide who receives one of six new contracts.
Commissioner Gary Hollis attended this, his last official meeting on the board, wheeling an oxygen tank, after undergoing triple bypass surgery Dec. 18.
Commissioner Dan Schinhofen cast the sole vote against. Schinhofen said he was prepared to vote in favor of the plan, but without elaborating, said he changed his mind after hearing public comment.
District Attorney Brian Kunzi said the plan would save the county from having to pay attorneys on an hourly basis to handle cases where Gibson & Kuehn has a conflict of interest. Conflict attorneys have cost the county an additional $700,000 in the last year alone. That’s in addition to what the county was already paying the law firm.
Two of the new contracts would be for $125,000, another for $150,000 and a partial share contract for $62,500.
Local lawyer Carl Joerger, who often works as a conflict attorney, again voiced his opposition to the county’s plan. Joerger said the county could have terminated the contract with 90 days notice. It was set to expire June 30, 2014, the same date the individual contracts will now expire. He advocated the county rebid the entire public defender contract.
“The biggest problem I have is this isn’t going to save us any money. The conflicts the public defenders have they’re still going to have if they break the law firm up,” Joerger said.
He said it was a “fait accompli” that attorneys for Gibson & Kuehn would get individual contracts.
Joerger charged Gibson & Kuehn with not living up to their original 2006 contract, which called for a fourth attorney. He said they also agreed to keep an office open in Tonopah from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
“If we’re going to award them a contract, we at least have to look at history so we’re not doomed to repeat it,” Joerger said. “If you wanted to, you could terminate their contract with cause. You don’t have to make a deal with them.”
Kunzi said the county was merely modifying its contract with the law firm. The plan is to have six attorneys working on rotation for indigent clients, estimated to be about 60 percent of the criminal cases that come before local judges.
“I just want to make sure everybody understands for the record that I don’t have a dog in this fight. My goal has been to put together a program that is going to save the county money. Our system is seriously broken. We spend way too much on conflict attorneys. I think the only way we can remedy this is to break up the current system we have. The law firm is willing to do that, providing we give them parts of these individual contracts,” Kunzi said.
Commissioners had talked about appointing Webster to manage the indigent defense program, but a $25,000 addendum to one of the contracts would appoint an attorney to oversee the program, including assigning cases on a rotating basis, monitor reporting requirements and approving any substitute attorneys.
Harry Kuehn, a partner in the public defender firm, said “we have an agreement, God willing, and the commission willing, that’s good until June 30, 2014.”
But Kuehn was scolded by Commissioner Butch Borasky, when he remarked that 20 percent of their clients were mentally ill, and pointed back at several members of the audience behind him.
At the last commission meeting, Schinhofen had advocated letting commissioners approve the awarding of contracts, instead of the county manager, but on Friday he was fine with just approving the contract amounts and letting Webster decide.
“Gibson & Kuehn is going to be dissolving and hopefully we’ll be picking up these additional contracts to do the same job we did before. But we’re doing it with the additional benefit of saving the county a lot of money,” attorney Tom Gibson said.
The other two attorneys at Gibson & Kuehn are Jason Earnest and Chris Arabia. Gibson said he doesn’t appear in court that often because he’s talking to clients in his office while the other attorneys are trying court cases. He took offense at Joerger repeating comments he claimed were made in confidence about problems the firm was having.
“The plan is to split up, we all to our separate contracts. I’m committed to giving people the best representation possible and nobody ever said I’ve said ill of them or hurt their feelings,” Gibson said. “Despite how peoples’ feathers might be ruffled, the bottom line is serving the community, serving the commission.”
Anthony Greco, who filed lawsuits against the town of Pahrump and Nye County and is facing felony arson charges later this month in court, attempted to read a statement critical of Gibson & Kuehn but was cut off by Schinhofen, who was acting as chairman. Commissioner Joni Eastley reminded the board of a disclaimer on the front page of the printed agenda that states they reserve the right to prohibit public comment if it is a topic not relevant, or disruptive of the meeting by being slanderous, offensive, inflammatory, irrational or amounting to personal attacks.
“The agenda item clearly states the action we are taking is regarding the termination of the contracts for legal representation and authorizing the county manager to award those contracts. The board has absolutely nothing to do with awarding those contracts. That action will be taken later,” Eastley said.