ST. GEORGE — A branch office of the U.S. Attorney's Office is open and ready for business in St. George, heart of one of the nation's fastest-growing counties.

"I remember when I first ran for the Senate in 1976, Washington County had 15,000 residents, now we have about 140,000 residents," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who spoke at a Monday news conference announcing the additional federal presence in St. George. "It's taken over a year to get this office here, but we've finally done it. It's a major accomplishment."

Brett Tolman, U.S. attorney for Utah, said two full-time attorneys, a secretary and paralegal would initially man the office set up in temporary quarters inside the Washington County Attorney's Office.

"We will continue to build on the relationships we have between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies," Tolman said, noting approval for the new office came from Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Prior to opening the St. George office, federal agents had to transport prisoners from St. George to Salt Lake City for all court appearances. With the addition of the local office, all stages of criminal proceedings other than grand jury matters, trials and sentencing hearing can be conducted in St. George.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, also hailed the addition of the U.S. attorney branch office to Washington County.

"This is indeed a great day for southern Utah. We talked about this for over a year," Matheson told a small crowd of law enforcement and criminal justice attorneys present at the press conference on the grounds of the St. George Town Square downtown.

"When you have the kind of growth we've seen here, coupled with the location of St. George along I-15, you need to have a cohesive federal presence," said Matheson. "This closes the circle."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Kohler, who already is working in St. George, said his office is actively pursuing and prosecuting several cases that originated in the region. Among the federal cases being prosecuted are an armed bank robbery and multiple cases of possession of child pornography.