10:00 PM PST on Tuesday, February 23, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Amid heated discussion over a technical error and whether one firm received special treatment, Riverside County supervisors on Tuesday delayed granting a new contract to handle criminal defense for poor defendants.

When the public defender’s office declares a conflict of interest, such as when there are multiple defendants in a single case, the county must use an outside law firm to provide legal representation to those who cannot pay.

On Tuesday, supervisors debated whether to approve a recommendation to renew the contract with the county’s current firm for $6.9 million.

The board voted 4-0, with Supervisor John Tavaglione absent, to reconsider the matter in three weeks.

The firm, Riverside-based Criminal Defense Lawyers, is run by attorneys Steve Harmon and Paul Grech and was one of two that returned bids to handle cases in downtown Riverside and Southwest Riverside County.

The other firm was Riverside-based Blumenthal Law Offices run by Virginia Blumenthal. Her bid came in $100 higher.

Both bids were about $850,000 less than what Criminal Defense Lawyers first proposed last year before the county sought proposals from other firms.

A committee consisting of Riverside County Presiding Judge Thomas H. Cahraman, Chief Probation Officer Alan Crogan and Court Executive Officer Sherri Carter recommended Criminal Defense Lawyers.

But Supervisor Jeff Stone harshly criticized the selection process, since it appeared Blumenthal would handle more cases.

Blumenthal said she would take on as many as 10,250 cases, costing about $675 per case. The contract with Criminal Defense Lawyers included a maximum of 3,960 cases, or about $1,000 more per case than Blumenthal.

“How do you justify to the taxpayers spending $1,000 more per case?” Stone questioned.

Stone said the bidding process was not transparent and it was “beyond a coincidence” that the two bids came in just $100 apart.

Blumenthal said the bidding process “smacks of cronyism and collusion.”

She submitted her bid a week after Harmon and Grech submitted their bid.

“I didn’t trust the process. I know what happens in this county. I have seen it over and over and over again,” Blumenthal said. “Yes, I am making those accusations.”

But Criminal Defense Lawyers in its bid agreed to take all cases, county officials said. The technical error was including case limits in the contract, County Counsel Pamela Walls and the firm’s lawyers said.

“We think we have provided a good, honest, fair service to the county,” Harmon said.

Cahraman, the presiding judge, defended his role and said there was no favoritism. The selection committee had a score sheet and awarded points to each firm, he said.

To read entire story, click here.