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Public defender loses contract over malpractice insurance

<p>Mark Waite / Pahrump Valley Times - Local defense attorneys looked on in 2012 as county commissioners considered altering how the county pays for indigent legal services. At far right, Harry Kuehn became the program coordinator but lost his contract last week.</p>

Mark Waite / Pahrump Valley Times - Local defense attorneys looked on in 2012 as county commissioners considered altering how the county pays for indigent legal services. At far right, Harry Kuehn became the program coordinator but lost his contract last week.

A Nye County public defender lost his county contract last Friday after failing repeatedly to provide proof of insurance.

Harry Kuehn was warned by county officials starting as far back as July that he risked losing his contract to represent area indigent defendants if he failed to purchase malpractice liability insurance.

Kuehn has been embroiled in a legal mess of his own doing since at least 2010. The entanglement culminated last summer with a proposal by the Nevada Bar Association to suspend his license to practice for five years.

The Nevada Supreme Court is currently weighing an appeal of that disciplinary action. Meanwhile, Kuehn allowed his insurance to lapse and ignored warnings from the county to purchase more.

“The purpose of this letter is to notify you that your contract with Nye County for Public Defender Services is terminated effective February 21, 2014 for failure to provide proof of professional liability insurance, despite repeated requests for this information,” states a letter from County Manager Pam Webster dated Feb. 18.

A similar letter was delivered to Kuehn on Jan. 14, alerting him that he would lose his contract effective Feb. 15.

A Nov. 26 letter to Kuehn also warned him that his contract was in jeopardy. Similar warnings were sent to the longtime attorney on Oct. 29 and July 23 as well. All were ignored.

The latest letter warns Kuehn that he owes the county $16,826.92 in money paid to him in advance.

Kuehn was not available for comment by press time on Tuesday. On Monday he was still working at the Pahrump courthouse. Nathan Gent, a former prosecutor and most recently a civil attorney for the district attorney’s office, was shadowing Kuehn.

Gent, before joining the district attorney’s office three years ago, was a criminal defense attorney. When asked last week by county officials if he was interested in taking a public defender contract to replace Kuehn, he said he was willing to do it.

Gent had been running for justice of the peace but announced at the Lincoln Day Dinner on Friday that he was suspending his campaign.

“The opportunity arose, it was so good. Looking at my wife and the future kids I want to have, it was too good an opportunity to pass up,” he told attendees at the Republican Party event.

Gent signed a $51,923 contract good from Feb. 24 to June 30, when it may or may not be renewed depending upon performance.

Gent told the Pahrump Valley Times Tuesday that ironically he mentored under Kuehn after graduating from law school and starting his own practice here more than three years ago. He said he will strive to continue the excellent tradition of providing competent counsel to defendants who can’t afford to hire an attorney.

“I’m passionate about it and I care about people. I will be a zealous advocate,” he said.

Nye County changed the manner in which it pays for indigent legal services in 2012, supposedly saving taxpayers about $500,000. Local law firm Gibson &Kuehn held a $550,000 contract for several years, but the county found itself still paying as much as $400,000 to $700,000 in additional money for conflict attorneys.

The firm’s four lawyers, Kuehn, Tom Gibson, Jason Earnest and Chris Arabia, decided to dissolve the partnership and accept individual contracts instead. The move allowed for fewer conflict attorneys and thus a cost savings.

The split was amicable, but not without some controversy, since it appeared the firm split up not to save the county money but because it was embroiled in a messy malpractice suit in federal court brought by a northern Nye County ranching family who blamed Kuehn for poor representation during a 2007 civil case. A $2.7 million judgment was levied against the family after Kuehn failed repeatedly to show up for hearings in the case.

After the firm was sued for malpractice, Gibson was forced to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Earnest was not an official partner of the firm, so escaped financial responsibility in the matter.

Kuehn, meanwhile, repeatedly failed to show up in federal district court to defend against the malpractice suit. At one point a federal judge was levying a daily fine against him for repeated absences.

Sought for comment Tuesday, Gibson said the community at large will be affected by Kuehn’s departure.

“It’s a shame to see Harry’s contract end the way it did. He’s always been an excellent advocate for his clients and he has an outstanding trial record as well. His experience in motion practice and appeals can not be replaced,” he said.

Asked about Kuehn’s replacement, Gibson said, “He has a hell of a learning curve ahead of him.”

Jason Earnest was more emotional about Kuehn’s departure and did not wish to comment before saying, “He’s like a brother to me. I don’t want to be part of the story. He’s like a brother to me. He’s one of the best trial attorneys in the state. I decline to comment.”

Earnest and Arabia, who worked alongside Kuehn but handles mostly norther Nye cases, joined the county’s chief prosecutor, Kirk Vitto, in filing friends of the court briefs with the state Supreme Court defending Kuehn’s record as an attorney and suggesting that the Fifth Judicial District will suffer in his absence. The briefs are part of Kuehn’s appeal of the state bar’s disciplinary action.