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St. Lawrence County Assigned Counsel on way to resolution

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CANTON — A revised system for handling assigned counsel cases in St. Lawrence County is limping toward a resolution that will satisfy the state and not give one defense attorney an advantage over another.

The problem with the office surfaced last year when the state Office of Indigent Legal Services refused to allow the county to install grant-funded software because Lisa M. Vecchio, the indigent defense coordinator, worked out of the county Board of Legislators office when the state said she should have been under an attorney’s direct supervision to avoid violating attorney/client privilege. County officials decided to create a legal secretary’s position in the county attorney’s office to perform clerical work for assigned counsel cases and to handle additional work.

Ms. Vecchio was not eligible for the job and transferred to a lesser-paying position in the Department of Social Services.

While a contract with the county Bar Association over the changes is hammered out, staff in the Board of Legislators office and individual judges took up the slack in making sure indigent clients were represented if their cases could not be handled by the public defender’s or conflict defender’s offices. A contract with the Bar Association remained unsettled after a meeting of the group Wednesday, but County Attorney Michael C. Crowe said a committee was formed to work out the details.

“The meeting was very helpful,” he said. “A lot of questions were asked and discussed. It’s just a question of wording and terms. I think everyone was aware we need a contract. The judges have been very cooperative in the meantime.”

A previous suggested arrangement would have had all the cases going to the public defender’s office first, but that was adjusted so that attorneys in that office do not know more details about a case than is fair. Instead, applications for a public defender will be logged in first at Mr. Crowe’s office and cases then sent to the public defender’s office.

With some opposition, legislators earlier agreed to proceed with the personnel changes as a way to ease the workload on staff in the board office even though a contract with the Bar Association remains unsettled.

“I know it’s a burden, but it’s a burden we created,” said Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction. “I think they’re one issue.”

However, a majority of other legislators decided that the personnel switches had to take place regardless of the contract that they hope to resolve in June.

“It seems like the pieces are coming together,” said Legislator Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam.

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