WILKES-BARRE — The defense team for double-homicide suspect Hugo Selenski was paid more than $49,000 after a Luzerne County judge said its members would “not receive one further dollar until the first day of trial,” according to a review of checks released by Luzerne County to the lawyers.
Attorney Shelley Centini, who no longer represents Selenski, was paid $30,556.23 on May 10, 2013, and attorney Edward Rymsza received $17,734.70 on Aug. 29, 2013. Private investigator James Sulima received $1,548.87 on May 10, 2013, according to the checks that were released Tuesday under a Right-to-Know request.
The payments came after Judge Fred Pierantoni, who is presiding over the Selenski case, issued an order on March 13, 2013, stating Selenski’s defense team would not be paid for hourly work performed from October 2012, and “will not receive one further dollar until the first day of trial.”
The order prompted Centini and Rymsza, who continues to defend Selenski in the homicide case, to file a motion asking to be withdrawn as Selenski’s lawyers on April 5, 2013, saying they had not been paid for their work and were concerned about how they were to be paid.
When the motion was filed, Centini had been paid $90,867.01 and Rymsza $34,336.52, according to a review of the checks.
Eventually, a total of more than $211,000 was paid to Selenski’s defense team from April 2012 to August 2013. Centini received $121,425.24, Rymsza $60,042.33 and Sulima $29,798.90, according to 19 checks released early Tuesday evening.
Selenski, 40, is facing the death penalty if convicted in the first-degree murders of Michael Kerkowski and Tammy Fassett, both 37, on May 3, 2002. Their bodies were found with flex-ties around their necks, hands and ankles in a shallow grave outside the Kingston Township home where Selenski lived on June 5, 2003.
In January, Selenski, Centini, 38, and Sulima, 49, were charged by the state Office of Attorney General with attempting to coerce five prosecution witnesses in the homicide case to change their testimony. Rymsza was not implicated.
Centini and Sulima have since been removed from Selenski’s defense team. Centini and Rymsza were appointed to defend Selenski in January 2012 by court orders that established a payment cap.
The court orders indicated Centini was to earn $85 per hour without benefits, with a cap of $40,000, and Rymsza was to earn $85 per hour, plus expenses and mileage reimbursement, not exceeding $10,000.
Almost immediately after Centini and Rymsza were appointed, Centini complained about the payment structure that was less than one-third of the rate she would charge a private client, according to the motion filed in April 2013.
Pierantoni extended the payment cap in June 2012 and then again in October 2012, when the orders were sealed from public view.
Centini stated checks she received after October 2012 were for work she had already performed.
A private hearing was held Feb. 6, 2013, when Centini, in an effort to secure more defense funding, stated, “We want to give Mr. Selenski the best defense possible.”
Pierantoni said in his March 13, 2013, order that the team had already received a good sum of money.
“It is obvious that significant, indeed extraordinary, public funds have been allocated to Mr. Selenski not only for counsel, but for multiple experts and investigators,” Pierantoni’s order states.
The judge noted Selenski, like any other defendant, is entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect trial.
Centini was to earn $400 and Rymsza $300 each day during the trial, which was expected to last two to three weeks. Their daily earnings included jury selection, which would have taken a few days due to individual questioning of potential jurors.
The Attorney General’s Office has charged Selenski, Centini and Sulima with theft along with the witness intimidation, alleging they deceived Luzerne County out of more than $50,000.
During a preliminary hearing before District Judge David Judy in Royalton, Dauphin County, last week, state Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye did not call any witnesses to testify about payments to Centini and Sulima.
A court-imposed gag order prohibits attorneys and prosecutors from publicly discussing the case.