Joel Burke (middle) provides his history of legal practice to Box Butte County Commissioners Mike McGinnis and Susan Lore, while County Clerk Judy Messersmith records the meeting.

After months of using outside legal firms to fill the void left by former public defender Jon Worthman, the position of Box Butte County Public Defender has been filled by Joel Burke, of Imperial.

The Box Butte County Commissioners interviewed Burke for the position at their June 3 meeting. Burke provided a brief history of his life and work.

“I was born and raised in Imperial,” said Burke. “After high school, I went to Chadron State and studied political science and economics. Then I went to Creighton for law school. Following that, I returned to Imperial and worked with another attorney in Imperial for three or four years. I served as deputy county attorney and deputy city attorney at that time.”

Burke opened a private practice in Imperial, which he still runs to this day. He told the commissioners the majority of his experience as an attorney is in criminal defense. Burke said he has been looking for career options over the past year, when this opportunity became available.

Commissioner Susan Lore asked Burke whether he would relocate to Alliance, and Burke responded that it would be his goal.

“I certainly would have to do one or the other,” Burke said. “I think it’s going to take a while to close my practice if that’s what I was to do. I understand that the predecessor, he didn’t live here. I think, probably, the issue underneath that more is would I devote sufficient time to the position to make sure I got it done, and I certainly, if you would offer me the position, I certainly wouldn’t accept it if I wasn’t going to designate sufficient enough time to do the job properly. Any transition is going to take time.”

County Attorney Terry Curtiss told Burke that Worthman maintained a private practice during his time as the Box Butte County Public Defender, indicating the position would not be full time. He also noted the benefits of having an official public defender, as opposed to the county relying on multiple firms to carry the weight of the work.

“Hopefully it’s going to facilitate scheduling for all of us that will allow us to deal with private practice as well as public responsibilities,” said Curtiss. “Right now, it’s just chaos.”

The commissioners voted to go into executive session to discuss the terms of a contract for Burke to serve the remainder of Worthman’s term, which would end with the election in 2022. The commissioners took no action in executive session.

Upon returning from executive session, Lore moved to offer the position to Burke with a salary of $51,511 and access to all of the county benefits. In the motion, Lore also included a provision to allow Burke to have a private practice. The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the offer.

Burke told the commissioners at the meeting that he would discuss the offer with his family before providing an answer.

“As far as accepting it, I’m 95 percent sure, I just have three grown kids in Imperial and seven grandkids, and I just want to go over everything with them,” Burke said.

In a phone call with the Alliance Times-Herald, Commissioner Mike McGinnis confirmed that Burke had verbally agreed to accept the position and that the county was working to develop a contract for him to sign. He said Burke would take on the role of Box Butte County Public Defender beginning on July 1.

Worthman was put on leave on Jan. 21 after being charged with possession of cocaine with intent to deliver, a class 1D felony, in Scotts Bluff County. According to court records, Worthman was arrested following a controlled purchase in which he bought one ounce of cocaine. The controlled purchase was organized by the WING Task Force and the Scottsbluff Police Department.

According to the Affidavit of Probable Cause, Worthman admitted to, “receiving cocaine in the past in exchange for legal services, as well as purchasing and using the illegal substance himself.”

In May, Worthman requested that his attorney, Marin Chaloupka, who he retained, be appointed as his counsel. According to the order filed on May 11, a financial affidavit showed that Worthman lacked “the funds needed to pay for further representation by private counsel, and does not have unencumbered assets sufficient to secure a loan.”

The order further states that because of the charges against him and the status of his license to practice law, he “does not have the ability to earn sufficient income to pay for further representation by private counsel.” District Court Judge Richard Birch sustained the motion, and appointed Chaloupka to represent Worthman.

On May 12, Worthman officially resigned from the position of Box Butte County Public Defender, after the commissioners allowed him to delay the resignation in order to maintain his health insurance offered through the county.

“I no longer need the insurance coverage that was provided to me by the county that was to lapse July 31, 2020,” Worthman’s resignation letter states. “I very much appreciate everything that the county has done for me over the past nearly 20 years and have enjoyed serving as the Public Defender.”

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