County Expands Probe of Court Payments : 64 Defense Attorneys Under Scrutiny for Allegedly Inflating Fees

Times Staff Writer

The number of court-appointed defense lawyers under scrutiny by Los Angeles County for questionable billing practices has been increased from five to 64, according to county auditors.

In a confidential memo sent Wednesday to members of the Board of Supervisors, Auditor-Controller Mark H. Bloodgood said a countywide review of court payments to private attorneys has disclosed additional "claiming practices which we believe have resulted in excessive claims for attorneys fees."

The audit, involving all Superior and Municipal courts in the county, was ordered by the supervisors earlier this year after a review of billings by several of the highest-paid court-appointed defense lawyers turned up "significant abuses" of the system.

The memo says 34 attorneys--including those from the earlier report--appear to have been overpaid a total of $341,946. Questionable billings of an undisclosed total by an additional 30 attorneys also are under review. Lawyers, who were not named, apparently have billed for excessive court time and twice for the same hours, the memo says.

Auditors will be meeting with the lawyers to discuss the irregularities.

Meanwhile, the district attorney's office is continuing a preliminary investigation of the billings, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Healey. "It's a mass of paper work," Healey said.

In a separate case, a South Gate Municipal Court judge, John R. Hopson, and a lawyer who now serves as a Municipal Court commissioner were indicted last month on grand theft charges for allegedly overbilling the county $10,165 for defending indigent clients.

Judges appoint attorneys to represent defendants who cannot afford one. Normally they use the public defender's office, but when there is a conflict or the office is overloaded, private attorneys are appointed. Such appointments, involving thousands of attorneys, cost nearly $30 million a year in Los Angeles County.

J. Tyler McCauley, head of the county audit division, said only attorneys who had billed the county for the largest amounts were included in the latest review. Sloppy record-keeping and incomplete explanation of services made the audit very difficult, McCauley said.

"A lot of the payments we can't question because we can't tell what we are dealing with," he said. "We get billed for 'waiting time.' What is 'waiting time?' "

Ed Edelman, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the new report "certainly indicates the system is not working properly." He said it also shows the county needs to move ahead with so-called alternate defense counsel programs, under which the county contracts with groups of lawyers to provide defense services for a fixed fee. Some judges have resisted the program, he noted.

George V. Denny III, president of the Criminal Courts Bar Assn., said, "Some attorneys have undoubtedly taken advantage of the system."

But, he said, the solution is to take the selection and appointment of private attorneys out of the hands of judges and give it to a bar association panel, along with clear standards for payment.

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