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DOUBLING OF ATTORNEY FEES STIRS INTEREST OF COUNTY LEADERS

Niagara County's costs for court-appointed defense attorneys rose 52 percent in 2004, and county leaders said Friday they will revisit the issue to see if something can be done about it.

The county was warned in 2003 that the state was substantially increasing the fees it requires counties to pay attorneys who handle criminal cases the public defender's staff can't handle.

Such cases normally arise because of conflicts of interest.

The most common problems are when a witness is a past public defender client, or when there are multiple defendants in the same case who are eligible for public defender services. In the latter instances, the public defender can only represent one of them.

In 2004, the county spent $228,469 on assigned counsel to represent defendants who cause such conflicts. The year before, under the lower fees, the tab was $150,302.

Assigned counsel are paid $75 an hour. Before 2004, the fees were $40 an hour for court appearances and $25 an hour for work outside the courtroom. The maximum per case was raised from $1,200 to $4,400, but attorneys can ask for and often receive more for the most difficult cases.

Angelo Musitano of Niagara Falls has handled many murder cases as a court-assigned attorney, but he said he doesn't do it for the money.

"I'm so oblivious to that (fee increase)," he said. "I think all lawyers take their obligation to the court very seriously. We have an ethical obligation to do so."

In 2003, then-Public Defender Joseph F. Townsend proposed having the county create a new department of salaried "conflict defenders" on the theory that it would be cheaper than paying assigned counsel by the hour. The Legislature defeated the proposal, which would have cost an estimated $400,000 a year.

Robert M. Pusateri, an attorney hired last year to coordinate assigned counsel, said he's doing work in his private office with no county clerical support. He's being paid $5.50 an hour to review assigned counsel vouchers for accuracy and assign counsel to handle appeals when needed.

Pusateri said as expensive as the assigned counsel costs are, they could have been worse under the Townsend plan. "They're going to see they saved hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.

County Manager Gregory D. Lewis said the notion of an assigned counsel staff will be revisited in the preparation of the 2006 county budget. "We'll see if it's making sense," he said. "It does cost considerably to set up a conflicts office," he said.

Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, said the Legislature hasn't discussed the issue in several months but likely will revisit it.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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