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Republican commissioners fire public defender Dante Bertani

Rich Cholodofsky
| Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The first and only chief public defender in Westmoreland County was fired on Monday after more than 41 years on the job, the latest of the sweeping changes made by the first Republican majority in the county commissioners' office in more than five decades.

Republican commissioners Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney said Dante Bertani will be off the payroll at the end of the month. The commissioners hired Sewickley Township lawyer Wayne McGrew, a Republican, as Bertani's replacement.

"He doesn't have the confidence of the current board of commissioners," Anderson said. "It's a team we're putting together to move Westmoreland County forward."

Bertani, 80, of North Huntingdon worked as chief public defender since the office was created in 1969. He chairs the Westmoreland County Democratic Committee after being elected in 2006. In addition, he chaired the party from 1982 until 1993.

Bertani could not be reached for comment. He never arrived yesterday afternoon at his courthouse office, where a commissioners' staff member was prepared to break the news.

"I don't have any ill will towards him. He served the people of Westmoreland County well, but it's a new day and a new regime," Anderson said.

The commissioners and five Republican row offices claimed victory in the November elections, tipping the balance of power in county government from the Democrats for the first time in 55 years. Anderson and Courtney said it was time to upgrade the public defender's office and refused to say the move was politically motivated.

"Any time you make a change, you could say it was politically motivated," Courtney said.

McGrew, 44, will begin on April 2. He will earn a salary of about $81,000 and, unlike Bertani, will be considered a full-time employee.

Bertani earned almost $87,000 last year.

Democrat Commissioner Ted Kopas did not hesitate to call the dismissal a political vendetta against Bertani, one of the most outspoken voices in the local Democratic Party.

Kopas said the move to fire Bertani and hire McGrew was done secretly and opens the county up to a lawsuit.

"A man who has given his life to the public defender's office deserves better treatment than this. To do it secretly, with secret deals and secret interviews, is an insult to the taxpayers of Westmoreland County," Kopas said. "Shoddy government like this is never the way to go. For two men who claim to disdain politics, there is no other explanation for this than politics."

The Republican commissioners interviewed public defender candidates last week while Bertani was out of town on vacation, Kopas said.

In January, Anderson asked Bertani to retire, but he refused, according to Kopas.

Judges, prosecutors and hundreds of local lawyers started their careers with Bertani in the public defender's office.

Westmoreland Judge Debra A. Pezze was hired by Bertani in 1983.

"He runs a very good office. He gives you guidance and direction, and he lets you learn to be a lawyer. I really do appreciate his idealism," Pezze said. "But it's fine he moves on. He needs to step away from it."

The county court administrator's office could not provide the number of cases handled each year by the public defender's office.

District Attorney John Peck's legal career started with Bertani in 1973. Peck and Bertani have squared off in courtroom battles for three decades, including a monthlong murder trial in 2010 and the 30-year prosecution of kill-for-thrill murderer Michael Travaglia.

"He's taught all of us a passion for this type of work. His stubbornness can be difficult for prosecutors to deal with but no criminal defendant can complain he wasn't properly represented," Peck said.

For the last six years, McGrew has worked as a private lawyer. He worked four years as an assistant district attorney and four years as a special agent for the FBI's organized crime unit in New York.

McGrew last year ran unsuccessfully in the GOP primary for county sheriff. Five years ago, he failed to secure a Republican nomination for county commissioner.

"I'm excited about this opportunity, and I'm hoping to make it a very efficient office. We have good attorneys up there," McGrew said.

He said he has no immediate plans to replace any of the 15 attorneys.

"Mr. Bertani has been there a long time. He built that office. I have big shoes to fill," McGrew said.

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