Fired Westmoreland County public defender sues to get job back

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Fired in March after 41 years as Westmoreland County's chief public defender, Dante Bertani has sued the county, claiming he was dismissed because he's a prominent Democrat.

Mr. Bertani, of North Huntingdon, who was fired at age 80, wants his job back plus compensation for humiliation and lost wages as well as punitive damages from the county, according to the complaint filed last Thursday in U.S. District Court.

Mr. Bertani served as chairman of the Westmoreland County Democratic Committee. After Republicans Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney became the majority commissioners in January, they told Mr. Bertani to retire, according to the complaint. Mr. Bertani refused. So the majority commissioners fired him and replaced him with Wayne McGrew, a Republican who had made several past bids for county office, the complaint said.

The firing violated Mr. Bertani's rights of free association and equal protection, according to the complaint, which named as defendants the county, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Courtney.

"That's up to Mr. Bertani to try to prove in court," said Mark Gesalman, solicitor for Westmoreland County.

"Under the public defender act, the public defender is to be appointed by the county commissioners," Mr. Gesalman said. "Any appointed civil officer may be removed at the pleasure of the appointing authority. ... There doesn't have to be any kind of just-cause reason. So the board of commissioners was free to select someone who they had confidence in to perform the required responsibilities."

Sam Cordes, Mr. Bertani's attorney, said the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has found that employees generally, and public defenders specifically, can't be fired on the basis of partisan politics, and the circumstances of Mr. Bertani's replacement suggest that is what happened.

"They've identified no other reason," Mr. Cordes said.

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Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542.


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