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Earned Every Cent, Says Lawyer Under Investigation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawyer Peggy Moore, under investigation by the county district attorney’s office after submitting bills last year for 3,758 hours of her time, said she earned every penny of the $150,350 the county paid her in attorneys’ fees and is “a very good value.”

“Everyone looks at the numbers and says (private) attorneys are taking advantage of the county. We’re not taking advantage of anyone or anything. We’ve got probably the most stressful job in the county for attorneys, and the numbers are out of this world, that most of us happen to carry.

“I am working too hard and too many hours,” Moore said. “I can’t keep it up. I’m exhausted. The only entertainment I have in my life is that on Sunday mornings I go out and feed my horse carrots. And I’ve had the horse a lot longer than this job. I don’t want anybody to think I bought a horse off this job.”

Moore, 48, a juvenile court specialist, said she has been notified that the district attorney is investigating her for purported discrepancies in her bills. But she defended her work--and her bills--and predicted that she will be cleared.

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Moore, a private attorney, handles cases that the county public defender’s office won’t take because of a conflict of interest. She earns $40 an hour from the county for juvenile court work and spent all of her time in 1989 on appointed work, she said.

Moore said the problem seems to be that the overall figure of 3,758 hours is high and that her daily bills can appear misleading.

For instance, she said, she may not have been consistent when matching a bill for work performed to the day the work actually was done. Perhaps, she said, she billed the work, in one lump, to a single day, even if it was done over several days.

To Moore, the key is that the work got done, not the form in which it was listed on a time sheet.

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“One day it turned up I had worked, I believe, 24 hours” according to her time sheets, she said. “I said. . . . I did the work, I just billed it when I got done reading the stuff.”

Her overall annual total equals 72 hours billed a week.

At high-powered civil law firms in San Diego and in other major metropolitan areas, where the lawyers often take pride in the frantic pace, it’s considered a major accomplishment to bill 2,500 hours annually, attorneys at those firms said. Moore’s total of 3,758 is roughly 50% more than even that.

Moore said that, if the time sheets add up to 3,758 hours, that’s what she worked.

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“It’s legitimate, that’s all I can tell you,” she said. “Absolutely legitimate. I don’t know one day that goes by that I don’t work.”

“The hours are reasonable and legitimate because I have to spend so much time in court, and I have no control over the time I spend in court. And, after court, I have to visit the kids, read the reports and prepare for trials.”

She said she carries about 350 cases. She said she believes that number is the highest caseload of any attorney at the juvenile court, where all the attorneys are overworked because of a dramatic surge in filings largely attributable to drug-related cases.

To keep up, she said, she works nights and weekends.

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During the week, she’s up at 5 a.m. and, after a brief dash through the newspaper, begins reading case reports at 6:30 a.m.

Evenings often are reserved for foster-home visits with her clients, Moore said. Primarily, she represents children in dependency cases, those in which the county is seeking custody of a child it contends has been abused or neglected.

The day often doesn’t end until 11 p.m., when she stops reading and the phone stops ringing. Every one of her clients has her home phone number, she said, and they frequently call her at night.

In 1989, Moore took one week off, in March, for vacation. But she took files with her and worked on them, she said.

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“My main issue is I carry more minors than all of the public defender attorneys over there,” she said, referring to the four deputies assigned to dependency matters.

“And I do not have the support system from the county that they have. And I do not believe it is less expensive for the county to have those public defenders” than to pay private lawyers, she said.

“For instance, they’re getting about $60,000 a year in salary,” she said. Experienced trial lawyers with the county earn a fixed salary up to $74,048 annually. “And that’s just salary, not the employer’s cost of the salary, no office cost, no nothing. They don’t have to buy (malpractice) insurance, no overhead.

“We’re dealing with the reality that this county has more and more kids in the system, and it’s not going to get cheaper--it’s going to get more expensive,” Moore said.

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“And we’re dealing with a County Board of Supervisors that think they’re from the backwoods. They’re not looking for quality, they’re just looking at the dollars. But I don’t think they’re realistically looking at the dollars.”


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