A divided Merced County Board of Supervisors awarded a $9.4 million legal services contract to a Madera law firm on Tuesday, over the protests of numerous Merced-area attorneys who warned that changing defense firms could throw dozens of cases into limbo.
The 3-2 vote ended a 14-year relationship with a long-time Merced County defense attorney and possibly opened the door for lengthy delays in dozens of high-profile and felony cases currently pending in court. Several Merced-area attorneys warned the supervisors of the possibility of a chain reaction of consequences.
Supervisors Lee Lor, Lloyd Pareira and Jerry O’Banion approved the $9.4 million contract with Madera-based Ciummo & Associates. Supervisors Rodrigo Espinoza and Daron McDaniel voted against the contract.
Merced Defense Associates, led by veteran attorney Tom Pfeiff, held the contract for 14 years. Tuesday’s vote extended MDA’s contract for three months past its planned June expiration to allow for a transition period in Merced’s criminal justice system.
While the Public Defender’s Office represents suspects who cannot afford to hire private attorneys, cases are referred to MDA when the county public defenders have a potential conflict of interest, such as representing a co-defendant in a case.
Local prosecutors and defense attorneys have expressed concern about switching vendors for defense services while coming off of a period where 90 people were murdered in three years. Many of those cases are pending in Merced Superior Court. MDA-contracted attorneys are handling more than 30 homicide cases, including 17 cases where their clients are facing a potential lifetime prison sentence.
The board vote came after more than two hours of public comment and supervisor discussion. Local attorneys, including contractors with MDA and attorneys with both the Merced County Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney’s Office, urged the board to extend MDA’s contract.
Chris Loethen, a deputy public defender, said about 10 years ago he turned down a job offer from Ciummo because he was going to be assigned felony cases with no prior experience. He urged the board to renew MDA’s contract. “They fight cases,” he said. “They don’t run from them.”
Rob Carroll, chief deputy district attorney, also spoke in favor of MDA. “Our big concern is we want to make sure homicide cases continue to get handled professionally,” he said. “MDA has done an excellent job. They’ve done a really fantastic job.”
Many members of the local NAACP also spoke in favor of MDA, including the group’s president Darryl Davis, who said their mission is to fight for equality and justice for the poor people of Merced County.
Richard Ciummo, his partner and the future supervising attorney for the Merced office also spoke, answering questions about the firm and describing their work.
“I am Mr. Ciummo, and I don’t have horns and a tail,” he said. “We have some history and experience in doing this. I stand by the quality of our attorneys – all of them.”
Michael Fitzgerald, CEO of Ciummo & Associates, said any rumors about high turnover at the firm are not true. “It’s not a situation where we hire attorneys fresh out of law school and cycle them out,” he said. “That’s just not the case.”
County staff requested bids for the service in August after O’Banion put the suggestion to a vote by the board. Two law firms responded – MDA and Ciummo & Associates.
The approved five-year contract includes seven staff attorneys, two staff investigators, six contract attorneys and additional contract investigators. Ciummo’s attorneys will handle all homicide cases and up to two death penalty cases a year, but not more than three death penalty cases at a time.
Both Loethen and Public Defender Dave Elgin said Doug Foster, who will be the supervising attorney at Ciummo’s Merced office, has an outstanding reputation in the legal community. “I’m excited about Doug Foster coming in and running that office,” Elgin said. “I think that can only be a positive thing for indigent defendants in this county.”
Ciummo said he Pfeiff met recently to begin discussing a transition. Ciummo also reassured the supervisors that the firm intends to hire local attorneys, even attorneys who have contracted with MDA.
“We’ve been expecting this,” Pfeiff said. “Now it’s time to make the transition as smooth as possible. That’s what I’m going to try to do.”
“The court is confident that there will be a smooth transition with the parties responsible for handling all pending cases,” Presiding Judge Donald Proietti said in a statement to the Sun-Star.
Before the vote, McDaniel said he believes the competition and accountability presented through the contract renewal was healthy for the county.
“A lot of you folks elected me to not rubber stamp things,” he said. “Because we’re having this discussion – this is fantastic. This is government. This is what we’re supposed to do.”
The supervisors didn’t elaborate on the reasons behind their votes, but previously McDaniel and O’Banion said they wondered about a conflict of interest for MDA since Pfeiff works with Cindy Morse, whose husband, Larry Morse II, is the county’s district attorney. However, the Fair Political Practices Commission said in a letter to the county the relationship was not a conflict.
Pareira reminded MDA’s contract attorneys that the board’s decision isn’t personal. “If it’s your livelihood at stake, this is crucial and vital to you,” he said. “The board is not being asked to employ you or to manage people’s defenses. Don’t think of this as a slight on you. It’s not.”
Espinoza, who voted against the contract, said he thought the board should explore an in-house conflict program, which would be much cheaper. “I think we should ask more questions,” he said.
O’Banion said before the county contracted with MDA, conflict services were dealt with through the public defender’s office. But at this time, he was “not interested” in going through the public defender’s office for that service. He said he’d consider it in the future.
Lor said the county should welcome new the new lawyers. “Should we choose the outside firm, let’s give them a Merced County welcome,” she said. “The quality service we provide to the community is what matters.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477