Public defender loses county contract
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Longtime local public defender Tom Gibson won’t be working on behalf of indigent defendants any longer after county officials declined to renew his $125,000 annual contract effective June 30.
Gibson said he was not given any reasons for losing the contract. The lawyer had been representing hundreds of defendants with active criminal cases who are unable to afford private attorneys.
Gibson’s ouster follows another longtime public defender’s departure in February. Harry Kuehn, who was Gibson’s law partner for many years, lost his contract for repeatedly failing to provide proof of malpractice insurance.
Gibson says he received a letter dated June 25 from County Manager Pam Webster alerting him to the expiration date of his contract and that it would not be renewed.
“I was informed by email two working days before the contract terminated. At this time, I’m considering my legal options,” says Gibson, who feels he deserved at least 30 days notice as a courtesy.
Though he threatened legal action, he says he doesn’t want the contract, he simply wants remuneration for the lack of notice.
“I would only want the contract back if it was offered to me. I’m not going to go begging for something that I wasn’t considered to be the most qualified person for.”
Webster did not return an email seeking comment. District Attorney Brian Kunzi said he has no input in the county’s selection of public defenders.
Kunzi helped formulate the latest incarnation of local indigent defense. For many years it was done by a law firm with centralized management, but today those services are performed by five unaffiliated attorneys in an effort to save taxpayer money.
“The contract terminated by the terms of the contract on June 30, 2014. Mr. Gibson was well aware of the date of termination. He made inquiry to me only a few weeks ago and I advised him he needed to indicate to the County Manager if he wished to be considered for a continuation of the contract,” Kunzi said via email.
Kunzi did not offer any potential reasons Gibson lost the contract. However, a letter to Gibson dated Nov. 26, 2013 from Webster, warns the attorney that he will likely lose his contract if he does not provide the county proof of insurance — he claims he did several times — and if he doesn’t engage in proper records maintenance in the northern part of the county.
Gibson, while partnered with Kuehn and another public defender, Jason Earnest, who also has a county contract, entered into a rental agreement for storage space in Tonopah to store confidential client records. After failing to pay rent on the storage space, those records were transported to an unsecure location where they could have become compromised.
“Failing to maintain proper records of the clients falls below the standard of representation Nye County has dictated in your contract,” Webster’s November letter reads.
Gibson admits there was a records management issue, but said he was not to blame for the oversight.
“I know during the one meeting I had with Ms. Webster, she was upset that I did not feel responsible for maintaining files belonging to Gensler and Earnest, Harry Kuehn, Esq. and other closed files that didn’t have anything at all to do with Earnest, Gibson and Kuehn or Gibson and Kuehn (former law firms). The issue was because a small amount of Gibson and Kuehn files were co-mingled in storage with the 90 percent of the old closed files, it was my fault apparently that they weren’t maintained in the way Ms. Webster thought they should,” Gibson said, adding that Kuehn was responsible for paying the storage fees and had failed to do so.
Gibson said he found out about the mishap only after Bob Perchetti, a Tonopah businessman, complained.
“I found out about it after he complained to Ms. Webster and the state bar, who contacted me. I took the initiative to pay Bob all of the back rent and gave him some rent to be paid forward until those files could be properly re-warehoused or destroyed.”
Besides the records issue, Gibson may also have lost his contract because of his involvement in an alleged sexual relationship with a public defender client last summer. Gibson took on the client as a pro bono case after rumors spread throughout the courthouse that he was involved with a woman named Antionette Bell. Both he and Bell repeatedly denied the rumors.
In a strange twist, Bell later filed a false complaint against Gibson’s wife with his wife’s employer, the Nye County School District. It was later discovered that Bell filed the complaint after allegedly being coerced to do so by a high-profile Nye County sheriff’s detective named David Boruchowitz.
Boruchowitz has since been investigated by the Nevada Department of Investigations. He is facing disciplinary action for his role in allegedly coercing Bell, sheriff’s department sources say.
Gibson, in his role as a defense attorney, demanded a few months ago that Kunzi’s office should produce material that could be used in court to impeach Boruchowitz as a credible witness, including an NDI report on the Bell matter that sources say could embarrass a number of people.
Asked whether all of this played a role in his contract being denied, Gibson said, “I don’t know. I will find out.”
Gibson had backed off pursuing what’s termed “Brady material” against Boruchowitz that could be used in court, but he says that now that he has no contract with the county to protect, he will likely press for the information again.
The defense attorney says that he currently has a respectable private case load. Not having the public defender contract may actually be a blessing in disguise — he will have more time now to focus on pursuing more lucrative legal work.
He regrets some of his court-appointed clients, who have just learned he will not be representing them, have already begun to call with concerns. He said he and Kuehn combined had more than 60 years of trial experience.
“I just got a call this morning from a guy who is facing serious felony charges and he was panicked,” Gibson said.
Gibson is being replaced by Lisa Chamlee, who was admitted to the state bar in 2011. Ironically, Gibson urged Chamlee to go after Kuehn’s contract in February. Sources indicate that Chamlee will be paid $150,000 annually.