By Mark Waite
Nye County commissioners Tuesday voted 4-0 to terminate a $550,000 annual contract with the law firm Gibson & Kuehn, offering instead flat fee contracts to five attorneys.
The funds are earmarked for defending indigent criminal suspects.
Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi said the county spent $700,000 on conflict attorneys in the past year, in addition to the half-million dollar public defender contract.
Both parties were in agreement. Gibson & Kuehn’s contract wasn’t set to expire until June 30, 2014. The three members of the firm will accept separate contracts, a fourth contract will be awarded to an attorney associated with the firm who covers Tonopah and Beatty, for representation in northern Nye County, Kunzi said. A fifth contract will be either a full-time share to one attorney or split into two separate contracts.
Carl Joerger, one of at least a half-dozen or more attorneys appointed when Gibson & Kuehn attorneys have a conflict of interest, complained he only found out about the plan in Friday’s edition of the Pahrump Valley Times. Commission Chairman Lorinda Wichman told him the agendas are posted online.
Joerger, who has sought the public defender contract in the past, charged Gibson & Kuehn hasn’t fulfilled the terms of its contract, like providing a fourth attorney after a second Pahrump justice court was added, the reason cited for a $60,000 annual increase in their contract in 2009. He suggested putting the entire public defender contract out to bid again, something former Chief Civil Deputy District Attorney Ron Kent said the county didn’t have to do three years ago.
“We have four departments, and they’re only being covered by two attorneys,” Joerger said.
“Right now their contract is $550,000 per year. In my opinion, that is a preposterous amount. That is too much for this county to be spending on counties in a recession,” Joerger said.
Commissioner Joni Eastley reminded him this money goes to indigent clients.
“We are not alone in Nevada with the exorbitant amount we spend for clients in the justice system,” Eastley said.
Joerger said if the county hired his firm they would’ve saved $90,000 per year, or $540,000 over the six years that Gibson & Kuehn held the contract. He said even if the partners in that firm split up, they would still have conflicts of interest.
He said the arrangement would cause a headache for the justice court clerks, who are already overworked.
“This is not going to affect any attorney-client relationship that already exists. They’ve been appointed as counsel, they will continue as counsel under the previous arrangement,” Kunzi said.
Commissioner Dan Schiinhofen made the motion to terminate the contract, but he wanted commissioners to approve the individual contracts instead of delegating it to County Manager Pam Webster to manage the indigent defense program.
“I would like the contracts to come back to us to vote on; they’re going to be a substantial amount of money,” Schinhofen said.
Kunzi wanted someone not connected with the court system to oversee the contracts.
Kunzi said Gibson & Kuehn is splitting up. Both sides to the agreement were waiving a 90-day notice to terminate the contract, he said.
“They are going to be now three totally separate entities, which means when one has a conflict, they don’t all have conflicts. In talking with the judges, in looking at the numbers, it really does appear that if we have five totally independent attorneys acting as a consortium providing indigent services, we can eliminate the requirement for other conflict attorneys. You can have an odd case where you’re going to have six, seven defendants and each one has to have their own independent attorney,” Kunzi said.
He also defended the work of Gibson & Kuehn attorneys, Harry Kuehn, Tom Gibson and Jason Earnest.
“The systems that we’ve been provided by the public defender, certainly in the two years I’ve been in office, they are not in breech of any of their obligations. They’ve been covering the courts and doing everything they have a legal obligation to do,” Kunzi said.
Schinhofen said if given the opportunity to approve the individual contracts, he couldn’t guarantee approval. But Kunzi said the three attorneys aren’t willing to walk away from the existing contract unless they are going to be assured of having separate contracts.
He endorsed having Webster supervise the program.
“I think it’s important for the Board of County Commissioners to set the framework for how it’s going to work, but I think the guts of it has to fall on the county manager,” Kunzi said. “You need to have somebody in place if issues come up. People need to have a place to go to; we may have attorneys who aren’t living up to their obligations. She’s in a position of policing it and deciding if action needs to be taken.”
Attorneys for Gibson & Kuehn didn’t address the county commission.
Kunzi told Eastley the commission could legally delegate responsibility to the county manager to sign contracts for indigent defense attorneys.