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Judge: Fayette owes Munchinski lawyer more

| Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A judge has increased the bill Fayette County owes a Washington County lawyer for appeals work on a decades-old double homicide case to $123,000 -- plus interest -- with $7,000 of that amount flagged solely for the time the lawyer has spent trying to collect.

But while visiting Northumberland County Senior Judge Barry Feudale did not order any of the cash-strapped county's elected officials to jail, as attorney Noah Geary had asked, the jurist did say that sanctions were forthcoming.

County officials went into court Tuesday arguing that paying the bill would create "an extraordinary drain on the county treasury," but Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink, chairwoman of the three-member board, testified that the county kept Geary's prospective fees in mind while budget planning last December. In a $197,000 line item termed "unappropriated balance," $75,000 was flagged to pay the bill, she said. An attempt to make an insurance claim for the fees was denied.

Feudale said he couldn't understand why the bill for a court-ordered attorney had caused such adversity between the county and Geary.

"Whatever is going on in this case independent of what I've heard today just baffles me," said Feudale, who presided over the hearing yesterday to determine if the county should be held in contempt of court. Geary has been trying to collect more than $100,000 the court says the county owes him for work appealing David Munchinski's 1986 conviction.

Munchinski, 52, was found guilty of the Dec. 2, 1977, slayings of James "Petey" Alford, 22, of Hempfield Township, and Raymond Gierke, 28, of Bear Rocks, who were sexually assaulted and shot to death at Gierke's home in the Fayette County resort community.

Feudale vacated the conviction last October, but Munchinski remains in prison as the state Attorney General's Office appeals.

Munchinski's case calls into question the integrity of two former prosecutors who later became judges, Gerald Solomon and Ralph Warman. Geary contends that evidence was manipulated and withheld at trial and during post-conviction appeals.

County Solicitor Joe Ferens told the judge that Geary's payment has been withheld because the court overstepped several critical questions.

"We are not willfully disrespecting this court or any other court," Ferens said. "It's our position that the county has some very good reasons we should not have to pay that. ... We never had an opportunity to be heard or be represented at any one of the hearings."

Ferens said notice of a Nov. 18 hearing to set Geary's fee arrived at the courthouse after-hours on Nov. 17, providing insufficient time for the county to prepare. He also argued that the county had no say in Geary becoming Munchinski's lawyer.

"He has the right to an attorney, but he does not have the right to an attorney of his choosing," Ferens said. "Mr. Geary should not have been appointed. That's giving him an open checkbook to do whatever he wants for the past two and a half years without scrutiny."

Geary began reviewing the case in late 2001 with $5,000 in hand from Munchinski's daughter, Raina. Feudale later ruled that, because of Munchinski's personal financial situation, Fayette County is liable for the legal bills.

Geary had been seeking a rate of $250 an hour, an amount that would have left the county with a $500,000 bill.

Feudale set Geary's rate at $50 an hour. Although there is no county policy for paying court-appointed attorneys, the $50-an-hour rate has come to be generally accepted.

When the first order, a bill for $72,836.50, was handed down on Dec. 16, Fayette officials were planning a budget that had a multimillion-dollar deficit, a circumstance that ultimately left county taxpayers with a 60 percent tax increase by the time the remaining $28,732.50 was ordered about a month later.

The county did not file an appeal or request for the court to reconsider either ruling. Ferens told the judge yesterday he did not speak with the prosecuting attorney from the state Attorney Generals Office about what went on during the fee-setting hearing until last April.

Geary is asking the judge to raise the rate to $100 an hour and impose a daily $250 fine.

"I'm not joking when I say this. ... If you ordered a commissioner to be incarcerated until I'm paid in full, I guarantee you a check would miraculously appear," Geary said. "I guarantee you I'd be paid before I walked out of this courthouse today."

Ferens called the comment an insult.

"That's absolute grandstanding. That's ludicrous," Ferens said.

Because of Fayette County's precarious financial situation, Ferens said the county is not quick to pay a $100,000 bill without exploring options.

"We feel an obligation to the citizens of this county," Ferens said.

Feudale said he wasn't planning to honor Geary's request for jail time, but he said the county's position lacks merit.

"We're aware that there was some money considered, and I think the county's assertion that they're concerned about the taxpayers has strange credulity," Feudale said, adding that he plans to impose sanctions in a forthcoming order.

He ruled from the bench that Geary's bill will increase to $123,232.49, plus 6 percent interest, to reflect additional work and time spent trying to collect what he was owed. In the six months he's been after the county, Geary said an hourly bill of roughly $7,000 has accumulated.

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