Checks reveal sums directed to Centini, Sulima, Rymsza

Last updated: April 29. 2014 11:06PM - 5846 Views
By - rdupuis@civitasmedia.com

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WILKES-BARRE — More than $210,000 of Luzerne County’s money was paid to accused double killer Hugo Selenski’s defense team in 2012 and 2013, according to check records released Tuesday.

That sum includes more than $121,000 paid to former Selenski attorney Shelley Centini and nearly $30,000 paid to her private investigator, James Sulima. Together with Selenski, Centini and Sulima are now facing witness-tampering charges.

The checks also show $60,041 was paid during the same period to Williamsport lawyer Edward Rymsza, a death penalty-qualified attorney who was not implicated in the case against Centini and Sulima, and who continues to represent Selenski in the homicide case.

The tally does not include payment for the trial, a preliminary hearing or numerous pretrial motions filed over the years, according to Shannon Crake Lapsansky, assistant solicitor for Luzerne County.

A copy of the document can be read with this story online at www.timesleader.com.

Release of those documents, like so much in Selenski’s court history, has been fraught with delays and controversy.

Selenski is accused in the flex-tie strangulation killings of Michael Kerkowski and Tammy Fassett, both 37, on May 3, 2002. Their bodies were unearthed from a shallow grave outside a house on Mount Olivet Road, Kingston Township, on June 5, 2003.

Selenski and another man, Paul Weakley, were charged in the case in May 2006. Weakley later pleaded guilty and in 2008 received a life sentence.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty if Selenski is convicted of first-degree murder, and Selenski has continued to fight, in a drawn-out legal saga that has seen his trial frequently delayed due to appeals with state appellate courts. There also has been much turnover on Selenski’s defense bench, including two months in which he represented himself during 2011.

Centini and Rymsza were appointed in January 2012.

State prosecutors in January charged Centini, 38, of Laflin; Sulima, 49, of Pittston; and Selenski, 40, with attempting to coerce at least five prosecution witnesses to change their stories. A state grand jury returned a 13-page presentment against the trio recommending charges be filed.

Luzerne County Judge Fred Pierantoni removed Centini from the case in February, over Selenski’s objections.

But when The Times Leader filed a right-to-know request seeking the records, county officials refused to turn them over, saying an Pierantoni placed them under seal.

“All records of payment to Shelley Centini, Esq., Edward Rymsza, Esq. and James Sulima pertaining to the Hugo Selenski case have been sealed by Order of Court by the Honorable Judge Pierantoni and such records are under seal and locked in the safe of the Clerk of Courts Office of Luzerne County,” Joan Hoggarth, director of judicial services and records, said in February.

A longstanding gag order prevents prosecutors, police and Selenski’s attorneys from publicly discussing the case. Under the state’s Right to Know law, however, financial records relating to accounts, contracts, audits and salaries for judicial agencies are presumed open. The burden of proving that financial records are not public falls on the judicial agency denying access, according to the law.

State officials found that the county did not meet that burden.

The state Office of Open Records late last month ordered the county to release the records, reiterating that financial records documenting payments to defense attorneys “are inherently public,” and adding that “at a minimum, a copy of a court order specifically stating that ‘all records of payment’ have been sealed is required to verify the accuracy” of Hoggarth’s statement.

“Without a copy of the court order specifically sealing the records at issue, the county has not met its burden of proving that the requested records are sealed pursuant to court order,” appeals officer Kyle Applegate wrote.

Selenski appeared in court in Dauphin County last week for a preliminary hearing in the witness tampering case, and acted as his own attorney in that proceeding.

District Judge David Judy said he will reconvene the preliminary hearing on June 4 when arguments will be made by State Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye, Centini’s lawyer Al Flora, Sulima’s lawyer Bill Ruzzo and Selenski.

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