The Woes of a Witness From Waukegan

Question: I am writing this letter to you in hope you can help me in collecting my witness fees.

In October, 1987, I was subpoenaed by the city attorney of Los Angeles to be a witness. Prior to this summons I was told that the city attorney would pay my expenses for coming to Los Angeles from Waukegan, Ill., to testify.

After I submitted my expenses (for $1,575), the city attorney's office informed me that it would take from 6 to 10 weeks before I would receive my expense money.

In October, 1988, I received from the Municipal Court of Los Angeles Judicial District a revised amount that would be paid. It was for $1,055, which I signed and returned.

Check Arrives

Finally, about four or five weeks ago, I received a check for $350. I called Mr. Pete Covette in the city attorney's office about the $350 and he stated that this was the amount that would be paid. How could I travel 4,300 miles (round trip), pay for seven nights' lodging ($20 a night) and eat three meals a day for $350?

I am amazed by the misleading statements made to me. Mr. Covette claims he did not know anything about the revised amount issued by the Municipal Court. I sent a letter to the city attorney of Los Angeles on Oct., 24, 1988, in regard to this and he did not reply. I hope that the city attorney's office will not stonewall you if you pursue this for me.--S.Z.

Answer: As much as the Los Angeles city attorney's office appreciates witnesses coming back here to testify, its staff is the first to admit that no one ever got rich doing it.

Pete Covette, the assistant supervisor for the West Los Angeles Branch of the city attorney's office and your principal contact here, regrets any misunderstanding but points out that fees and expenses for out-of-state witnesses are rigidly spelled out in the statutes (Penal Code, Section 1334.3).

And, unless a judge personally intervenes, there's not much anyone in the city attorney's office can do about it. And the limits that the statute puts on surface travel expenses, as well as the per-diem expenses, obviously haven't been revised for lo, these many years: 10 cents a mile if the witness elects to use surface transportation and $20 per diem for other expenses.

The confusion, Covette feels, arose because, instead of flying out, you elected to drive here from Waukegan and billed the city for 20 cents a mile. There is a 20-cent-per-mile provision in the statute, but it applies only to surface transportation (cabs or a rental car) used to get you to the airport back home, and to and from the airport here.

Had you chosen to fly out (and that's what the lion's share of the witnesses do), the city would have picked up your round-trip air fare. And, because it turned out that your testimony wasn't needed anyway (the defendant entered a guilty plea), "We would have picked up his hotel bill until we could arrange for a return flight home," Covette adds.

Visits Daughter

According to the city attorney's records, you chose to drive out and spent the next three months visiting with your daughter, who lives near here. Covette and his office have no quarrel with that, nor with the eight days' per diem for which you billed the city.

"His hotel and meal expenses for those eight days aren't very much out of line with our limits, anyway," Covette adds. But where the figures get skewed is in the computation of the mileage--4,300 miles at 10 cents a mile is $430 and you billed it at 20 cents a mile (the local rate), which is $860.

The city attorney's assistant supervisor admits that the whole thing has taken far, far too long--the person originally handling your case transferred out of the office, the case was temporarily dropped and then the since-settled case in which you were going to testify was assigned to a judge who didn't feel he had jurisdiction to rule on the expense matter.

And, Covette concedes, the city does, indeed, still owe you some money, which he promises he will get to you posthaste. The city puts your actual expenses at $590, of which you've received $350. The other $240 will be along very shortly.

This leaves one baffling aspect still unresolved: that mysterious revision from the Municipal Court of Los Angeles Judicial District, which scaled down your submitted bill of $1,575 to $1,055.

"We can't find any record of such a revision, anywhere," Covette says, "and I've asked him several times to send me a copy of it--it would certainly resolve the whole thing--but he says he's lost it. And, without it, our hands are tied."

You are right in one respect, of course: There's no cockeyed way in the world anyone could drive from Waukegan to Los Angeles at 10 cents a mile and break even on it. But, until somebody updates the statute to more realistic levels, that's what they are stuck with paying you.

Philosophically, look at it this way: You had a nice, leisurely visit with your daughter and the City of Los Angeles, at least, picked up a token part of the expenses.

Q: I wanted to thank you ever so much for your recent article regarding my dilemma with Blue Cross. My enclosed letter from Blue Cross will indicate to you how effective your article was--what my lawyer and the insurance department could not do, you accomplished.--Z.A.

A: All's well that ends well regardless of how it came about. The drastic cutback in the amount that Blue Cross would pay for your young son's required physical therapy struck me as an error of some sort, and it's encouraging to see that Blue Cross has gone back and reimbursed you for the two claims previously denied, and that it intends to honor all future therapy sessions for the boy at the agreed-upon 80% basis. I'm delighted that it worked out for you.

Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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