Allegany County assistant district attorney to switch sides

The second assistant district attorney for Allegany County is scheduled to switch courtroom tables March 1, becoming the conflict defender for those charged with crimes.

Assistant District Attorney Peter J. Degnan makes a point to members of the Allegany County Board of Legislators Public Safety Committee on January 4 during a discussion on bail reform and prosecutor caseloads. (Allegany County livestream image)

Belmont attorney Peter J. Degnan is on the county Board of Legislators agenda this afternoon to be appointed to the new $103,680 part-time position, with duties activated whenever the public defender’s office has a conflict of interest in representing an indigent defendant.

The county determined to create the position instead of continuing to try obtaining whatever counsel is available when conflicts arise, which was reported to be an increasing problem due to lack of interested and available defense attorneys.

Such legal counsel still will be required, however, if both the public and conflict defenders offices have conflicts of interest.

Conflict defender to be part-time
County Administrator Carissa Knapp, in requesting appointment of Degnan last week, said he would be working part-time, “although working a significant amount of hours each day ….. so it would be just slightly less than full-time.”

In response to an Allegany County Community News inquiry, Knapp said that full-time for the county is based on seven hours a day, or 35 hours per week, with the salary for the new position allocated for six hours a day.

Being part-time, Degnan will be able to continue his private law practice “in any way that doesn’t pose a conflict of interest to him,” according to the county administrator. The attorney recently opened a new office at 2 Schuyler Street at Belmont’s main business district intersection.

The salary for the new position is $16,280 more than the $87,400 current salary for second assistant district attorney, although the hourly equivalent appears to be higher than the $114,000 annual salary of County Public Defender J.R. Santander Carter, based on hours described by Knapp. Fringe benefit costs weren’t described in the request.

No discussion about aspects of switch
Aspects of Degnan’s switch from prosecutor to defender weren’t discussed in public sessions by the Public Safety Committee.

In January, the lawyer told committee members, as he discussed the district attorney’s monthly report to committee, that “bail reform has done a lot of damage everywhere” when it comes to the criminal justice system, a viewpoint generally reported to be inconsistent with those expressed by public defender offices in the state.

The attorney said that defendants “get arrested, nothing happens (to them), they commit another crime,” or “they steal, they get out, they steal again …. it’s a problem.”

The January 4 discussion is available at https://bit.ly/3EvFqlb, starting at approximately 17:40 minutes.

Degnan’s former position scheduled for full-time
In a related action, county legislators also are slated to vote today on abolishing Degnan’s part-time prosecutor position and replacing it with a full-time appointment at a rate of $70,700 to $100,750 annually, depending on proficiency and experience, plus fringe benefits of $30,854 to $43,967.

First Assistant District Attorney Ian Jones, who is seeking election in the fall to replace retiring District Attorney Keith Slep, told committee members last week that “obviously, a full-time is self-explanatory” as to what more can be done than with a part-time position.

The prosecutor said he feels “we’re still very much in need” of additional personnel time and resources and changing the position from part-time to full-time “moves us in the right direction.”

He told the committee that he has someone in mind who he believes will take the full-time position but it is too early to make such determination public.