Wednesday, March 17, 2004 | 11:17 a.m.
Phil Kohn, chosen Tuesday as the new Clark County public defender, says he is looking forward to making major changes to the embattled office.
Kohn will take over an office that came under fire after several independent reports revealed glaring problems in the office's representation of indigent clients, particularly juvenile clients.
"There's been some turmoil over the last few years and we're going to end that," Kohn said.
His appointment to head the office of 75 attorneys is expected to be approved April 6 by the Clark County Commission.
Kohn currently heads the county's special public defender's office, which handles only murder cases and the majority of the county's death penalty cases. Separate from the public defender's office, the special public defenders also take murder cases in which there is a conflict with the public defender's office, such as overlapping defendants or witnesses. It also routinely handles cases in which juveniles are charged with murder.
"I've wanted this job for a long time, so I am very happy," Kohn said late Tuesday.
"My goal is to establish an aggressive, well-trained staff working as a team to ensure justice for indigent people and to always act in the best interest of the client."
In January 2001 a report by a nationally known research agency criticized the office for bringing only 156 of 28,898 indigent defense cases, or 0.6 percent, to trial in 1999. The national average was 4 percent to 7 percent.
Reports by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and a Nevada Supreme Court task force outlined similar deficiencies within the office.
Kohn's appointment wrapped up a two-month, nationwide search to fill the position left open by Marcus Cooper, who retired from the office in January.
The search netted 17 applicants, said County Manager Thom Reilly, who made the final selection.
Thomas Pitaro, a prominent local defense attorney, and Jeff Thoma, who heads the public defender's office in Mendocino County, Calif., were among the top three finalists.
Reilly said he had offered the job to Pitaro last week but Pitaro turned it down for financial reasons. Pitaro did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Reilly said he's confident, however, that Kohn "is well prepared to deal with the challenges ahead."
"Phil has a proven track record," he said. "He's done a great job with the special public defender's office. He's well respected in the community and the legal community."
Kohn said he believes the whole community benefits from strong indigent defense.
"If the public defender doesn't do their job correctly, sooner or later the case is reversed," he said. "That doesn't help anyone. We need to do our job right and do it once."
Darren Richards, who served as assistant special public defender, will be appointed as the acting special public defender until county officials determine how they will fill the position, Reilly said.
Kohn's current salary is $131,300, Reilly said. His new salary has not yet been negotiated, but the position tops out at $159,000, Reilly said.
At the top of Kohn's list is changing the office's handling of juvenile cases, he said. Kohn visited the office at the Family Court building late Tuesday.
"For a long time, the juvenile office was ignored," Kohn said. "But county management has been very supportive of putting people down there and so am I."
Kohn said he also would like to free team chiefs from overwhelming caseloads so they can better guide other attorneys.
He said he is less concerned with trial statistics and more concerned with ensuring that clients are well represented.
"I'm not worried about numbers. I'm worried that clients receive the best care available and that attorneys always act in the best interest of the client," he said.
Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, who long argued that the office was in need of reform, responded to Tuesday's announcement with guarded optimism.
Peck said the ACLU hopes Kohn will "do whatever is necessary to fix the office's problems that have been allowed to fester for too long."
"We pledge our support in this regard, but also pledge to continue to monitor the agency's progress and to do what's needed to ensure that people's rights aren't violated just because they are poor," he said.
Reilly said the public defender's office already has made strides, including the assigning of six additional attorneys to handle juvenile cases.
The office also recently hired its first training director, who will create a program to help attorneys develop their legal and trial skills.
"We're looking at continuing to move forward on the recommendations that the NLADA and other community groups have recommended," Reilly said.
Kohn's appointment came after a lengthy selection process in which seven candidates were interviewed by two panels that consisted of several members of the Nevada Bar. The top three finalists made a presentation to the staff of the public defender's office. Reilly then interviewed the finalists one on one.
Peck criticized the law that requires the public defender to be a member of the Nevada bar, adding that as a result, the majority of the applicants were from in-state.
"The candidate pool wasn't all we'd hoped for given how daunting a task it will be to reform the agency," Peck said. "Despite this impediment, the county did all it could to attract the best applicants and to select the right person for the job."