Advertisement

County to Probe Payments to Court-Appointed Attorneys

Share via
Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday asked Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner to investigate apparent irregularities in the county’s payment of legal fees totaling more than $25 million a year to court-appointed criminal defense attorneys.

Reiner later said that he has asked the special investigations division of his office to determine if a criminal investigation is warranted.

The supervisors also called on the county auditor-controller to study the payment practices of the Superior Court and the 24 Municipal Court districts in the county.

Advertisement

The action, taken at the request of Supervisor Deane Dana, was prompted by a county report on the three highest-paid court-appointed defense lawyers, who, the document said, together billed the county for $931,000 from September, 1982, through December, 1983.

Supervisor Ed Edelman called the report “a shocker” and an “eye opener.”

County officials identified the three attorneys as Charles E. Lloyd, who received $352,000 during the 16-month period; Charles C. Patton, who got $301,000, and James L. Farley, who received $278,000.

Lloyd is Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s former law partner and a family friend of 30 years. Last summer Bradley appointed Lloyd to the Harbor Commission, a post from which he resigned in October.

Report’s Findings The report, dated Dec. 27, was requested last February by Supervisor Pete Schabarum and prepared by then-Chief Administrative Officer Harry L. Hufford.

The five-page document, accompanied by 11 pages of supporting material, includes these findings:

- Over the 16 months studied, Farley billed the county for an average of 77.7 hours of work a week, Lloyd for 67.6 hours and Patton for 53.3 hours. During one nine-week period, Farley’s weekly billing averaged 101 hours, with a one-week high of 128.75 hours.

Advertisement

- On four occasions, Farley billed the Los Angeles Municipal Court for a given day’s work while billing the Superior Court for additional hours on the same date.

- One Los Angeles Municipal Court judge, later identified as George Trammell, authorized payments to Lloyd that averaged $140 an hour and payments to Patton averaging $126 an hour. During the same period, 10 other Los Angeles Municipal Court judges were paying Lloyd and Patton an average of $61.50 an hour.

- Court record-keeping was, in many instances, sloppy. County officials were unable to find 10% of the bills submitted by the attorneys and paid by the county. In some cases payment claims were incomplete, failing to properly detail hours worked or basing billing on a daily instead of on an hourly basis.

Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, reacting to the report of the 128-hour workweek, said, “That would mean a person would have to work around the clock, wouldn’t it? It’s more than strange. . . .”

Lloyd, in an interview with The Times, called the release of the report “one of the ugliest things I have ever seen in this city.” He said that he has done nothing wrong and that he expects to be vindicated if the district attorney’s office decides to investigate his billing practices.

In many cases, Lloyd said, he billed the courts for work performed by other attorneys in his office, a practice of which, Lloyd said, the judges were aware.

Advertisement

‘Must Be a Reason’ “I did not tell them (judges) how much to pay me,” Lloyd said. “There must be a reason why the judges would appoint me on so many cases.”

Lloyd added, “I’d like to believe that this is accidental and is not a contrived thing because I’m black and because Charles Patton is black.”

Trammell, the Municipal Court judge cited in the report, said he does not consider payments to attorneys of $150 an hour to be excessive in especially difficult or critical cases, such those involving the death penalty. In any event, Trammell said, some court practices, such as paying a minimum fee of $150 regardless of the length of the appearance, may have artificially inflated the hourly rates quoted by county officials.

Under California law, individual judges have wide leeway to set the fees for the attorneys they appoint.

Neither Patton nor Farley could be reached for comment.

In response to the report’s findings, the supervisors asked Ted Reed, assistant chief administrative officer, to report on the possibility of expanding programs that offer alternative ways of providing lawyers for indigent criminal defendants.

The board also adopted a series of recommendations outlined by Hufford aimed at limiting the cost of court-appointed lawyers.

Advertisement

Some of those recommendations have already been adopted by the Municipal Court, Reed said. Included in guidelines approved by the court last October are specific provisions for submitting time sheets, improving record-keeping and paying for “routine criminal matters” at a rate of $50 an hour.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark decision in 1963, extended the right to legal counsel to defendants in all serious criminal cases, regardless of their ability to pay.

Public Defender Appointed

When a defendant cannot pay for his own attorney, a judge usually appoints a public defender, whose salary is paid by the county.

In some cases, the Public Defender’s office excuses itself, either because it is overburdened or because of a conflict of interest. In those cases, judges are free to appoint private defense attorneys who are paid by the county.

In 1983-84, Los Angeles County spent $16.8 million to provide legal counsel for indigent defendants in Superior Court. Between December, 1983, and November, 1984, the county spent an additional $7.3 million for court-appointed attorneys in Los Angeles Municipal Court, one of 24 Municipal Court districts in the county.

In contrast, the county in 1972-73 spent $1.5 million for court-appointed defense attorneys in Superior Court.

Advertisement

Attorney Carl Jones, who operates the so-called Alternate Defense Counsel program in the San Fernando Valley, told the supervisors that his office, which employs 14 attorneys, could function for a year on the amount paid to Lloyd, Patton and Farley. In its first year of operation, Jones told the board, his lawyers handled 6,500 criminal cases.

Times Staff Writer Ted Rohrlich contributed to this story.

Advertisement