HAGERSTOWN, MD., AUG. 28 -- A Washington County Circuit judge has granted a change of venue to former Circuit Court judge Paul Ottinger, who faces forgery and theft charges for alleged insurance fraud.

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Frederick C. Wright III made the ruling yesterday, accepting defense arguments that pretrial publicity and Ottinger's activities as a judge in the county would make selection of an impartial jury difficult.

Ottinger, who pleaded guilty July 20 to related federal charges, is charged in the state court with 10 counts of forgery and seven counts of theft.

Wright moved Ottinger's trials from Washington County in northwestern Maryland to Somerset County, the southernmost of Maryland's Eastern Shore counties, to assure a fair and impartial jury, he said.

Ottinger served as a Circuit Court judge from 1971 to 1977. He pleaded guilty July 20 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to one count of federal mail fraud and one count of federal bank fraud. He could be imprisoned up to seven years and fined up to $500,000 for the federal conviction.

He is now in the Washington County Detention Center.

Ottinger is charged with forging the names of several clients on insurance claim releases and then keeping the money. He was arrested by FBI agents on April 23 in York, Pa., where he allegedly was living under an assumed name. Police said he was trying to establish a new identity as a retired schoolteacher.

Ottinger, 72, left the Washington County area abruptly in February.