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Westmoreland taps 10 lawyers to supplement public defender

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

Westmoreland County has named 10 lawyers to act as defense attorneys in criminal court cases involving indigent defendants.

The lawyers are part of a newly enacted system implemented to supplement the public defender's office in cases where there is a conflict of interest that would prevent those attorneys from representing clients.

“The court is looking forward to using conflict counsel because of possible cost savings and efficiencies,” said Court Administrator Paul Kuntz.

County commissioners signed off on the pilot project last month and will formally approve employment contracts with the lawyers on Feb. 14.

Kuntz said the lawyers hired are: Tim Andrews, Brian Aston, Tim Dawson, Michael DeMatt, Patricia Elliott, James Fox, Amy Keim, David Regoli, Jim Robinson and Valerie Veltri.

All have worked as court-appointed lawyers in criminal cases.

Under terms of their contracts, each lawyer will be assigned 38 cases and earn $20,000. They will serve as private contractors, not county employees, and will receive no public benefits.

In 2012, the county paid more than $305,000 for court-appointed lawyers. The conflict counsel system will pay out a minimum $200,000 to the lawyers, although additional funds will be needed to pay lawyers who are appointed to represent murder defendants.

Specifics of how the program will be administered are still being worked out by the four criminal court judges, Kuntz said.

Attorneys could be assigned to cases on a rotating basis or based on geographical regions.

The conflict counsel system is slated to begin on March 1.

“We're viewing this as a pilot program and we'll consider using it in family court cases in the future,” Kuntz said.

Court officials originally planned to hire five lawyers to each handle up to 75 cases and earn $40,000 apiece.

Due to the strong response from interested lawyers — 34 applied — judges decided to revise the original plans.

For decades, each criminal judge appointed lawyers for indigent defendants on a case-by-case basis when there was a conflict of interest with public defenders.

Those lawyers earned $45 an hour for their work.

About 25 counties throughout Pennsylvania are using a conflict counsel system in criminal cases.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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