A Riverside County defense attorney who has been practicing law for 40 years— 10 of those under county contract— was Wednesday named the county's public defender.
Steve Harmon, 65, is slated to begin his duties before the end of the current fiscal year, taking over management of an agency with a roughly $33 million annual budget and 225 employees.
Harmon was hired by county CEO Jay Orr following a selection process that involved about 50 applicants, according to the county Executive Office.
The search for a qualified candidate began two weeks after the Nov. 7 departure of then-Riverside County Public Defender Gary Windom, who had been in the post since 1999, leaving amid allegations of internal conflicts.
"The selection of Steve Harmon as the public defender is an excellent choice," District Attorney Paul Zellerbach said. "He is extremely professional and has been a highly regarded criminal defense attorney in this county for 40 years ... He commands the respect of judges, attorneys and law enforcement."
Veteran Deputy District Attorney Mike Hestrin, who has known Harmon for 15 years, said he believes the Riverside-area resident "will be a good leader for the public defender's office."
"Steve is very well respected by both the defense Bar and by prosecutors," Hestrin said. "I'm sure he'll do a great job."
Brian Boles, who formerly served as assistant public defender, will continue as interim public defender until the new boss takes the helm.
Harmon became a criminal defense attorney in 1972. In 2002, he and associate Paul Grech formed Criminal Defense Lawyers Inc. and won an indigent defense contract with the county that continues to this day. Under the agreement, CDL picks up felony and misdemeanor cases in which the Office of the Public Defender declares a conflict.
CDL handled indigent defense cases in the entire western county region until 2011, when the contracts were divvied up after criticism about how they had been awarded. CDL now handles cases in Murrieta and Banning, while the law offices of Virginia Blumenthal provides attorneys for indigent defense in the Riverside metropolitan area.
Harmon is a past president of the Riverside County Bar Association and has represented clients in around 350 jury trials, including four death penalty cases.
His county salary will be $223,000 per year, plus benefits and a car allowance.