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Lawyer Asks for Court-Appointed Attorney : Fraud case: He is accused of billing the county for legal work that he never did. He collected $1.3 million in the last three years but now claims he is indigent and wants taxpayer-provided representation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the look of his bills, Raymond Newman was the biggest workaholic in town. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Fourth of July--barely a minute seemed to go by that the court-appointed criminal defense attorney was not punching the county clock on behalf of his indigent clients.

But after paying him more than $1.3 million during the last three years, the county cracked down on the veteran Pasadena lawyer. In April, Newman was indicted on criminal charges of grand theft and perjury for allegedly billing taxpayers for legal work when, according to prosecutors, he was actually vacationing in Hawaii and Mexico, watching the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line” in New York or jetting cross-country as an amateur sports agent trying to enlist superstar athlete clients such as football and baseball player Deion Sanders.

Now, in a case that prosecutors and county officials say is the most egregious example of chronic overbilling by some court-appointed lawyers, Newman has put a novel twist on his defense: Arguing that he is impoverished, he is asking the county to hire a court-appointed lawyer to represent him.

“He is a thief who took maximum advantage of weakenesses in the system . . . and now that he’s had the whistle blown on him, he wants the public to pay for his defense,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Healey. He called the request “real damn brazen, let me tell you.”

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Newman, meanwhile, refused to comment except to say that the charges against him are “all untrue.”

“Write whatever the (expletive) you want,” the trim, bespectacled lawyer snapped as he strode down the hallway of the Criminal Courts Building this week. “I’ll tell my side of the story in court.”

Court and county officials say the case underscores a long-standing problem in the local court system, where private defense attorneys are routinely appointed when the defendants are too poor to hire their own attorneys and the public defender’s office cannot take the case.

Court-appointed attorneys submit bills to the judges for the time they put in on those cases. Although lawyers are limited in the amount they can charge per hour, it is common for some to rack up thousands of dollars of legal fees, particularly in drawn-out death penalty cases which are complex and often all-consuming for the lawyers involved.

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Critics, however, complain that judicial gridlock and lax oversight have encouraged some lawyers to inflate their billings.

“Certain attorneys get appointed again and again, and then they bill the living hell out of these cases, which in turn, aren’t well scrutinized by the judges,” Healey said.

“Most of these (lawyers) are honest guys and girls who’d no more think of stealing from the county than they would hold up a gas station. But there are others I compare to lab rats who hit a little lever and a sugar pellet comes out--they notice that they can increase their billings and the money will just keep coming.”

A 1990 audit by the county auditor-controller’s office, for example, estimated that overbillings by court-appointed attorneys might have been as much as $1.5 million in 1988 and 1989. In the 1989 fiscal year, the county spent nearly $29 million for court-appointed lawyers. Of that, $5.6 million went to 18 court-appointed attorneys, the audit showed.

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A few, including Newman, collected more from the county than the defense lawyers assigned to the record-setting McMartin preschool molestation case. And more than half of those 18 lawyers billed the county for more than the generally accepted maximum of 2,000 billable hours a year.

The findings and ongoing questions about overbillings prompted the Executive Committee of the Superior Court to initiate changes in 1990 designed to crack down on fraudulent billings. Among other things, documentation of large claims must now be more detailed, lawyers cannot handle more than two death penalty cases at once, and any lawyer who bills more than 2,400 hours on a death penalty case or more than 2,000 hours on a non-capital case runs the risk of not getting paid.

Moreover, the county now has a sophisticated computer system designed to flag any court-appointed attorneys whose payments seem disproportionately large.

Healey, however, said the changes so far amount to “tinkering” with the system, because judges still approve the payments.

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"(The system) puts the judge in a bad position,” said Healey. “An attorney will say, ‘I worked 15 hours today,’ and if you’re a judge, how do you call him a liar unless you have evidence he was at a football game that day?”

Superior Court Judge David Horowitz took issue with that, particularly in light of the recently instituted changes.

Horowitz, who was supervising judge of the court’s criminal division when the accusations against Newman surfaced in 1989, said the old system was not phased out until this year. He said that under the new system, judges are kept apprised of a lawyer’s total workload, and they can and do hold them accountable.

But he acknowledged that even now, “the judge has to basically assume that the attorneys are going to be honest.”

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It was a judge and Newman’s peers who prompted the current case against Newman. He had been under scrutiny since 1986, when the district attorney’s office charged him and eight other court-appointed lawyers with overbilling the county. In 1989, Newman signed a stipulated judgment in which, without admitting guilt, he agreed to pay $25,508 to settle the civil suit.

By that time, however, fresh accusations had surfaced, and he was suspended from the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments Panel, which in turn passed its concerns about his billing practices on to the State Bar and the county auditor for further investigation.

The charges were picked up by Judge Richard P. Byrne, then the presiding judge of the Superior Court, and after a grand jury investigation, Newman was indicted in April on two counts of grand theft and three counts of perjury dating back to 1985.

Prosecutors contend that he billed the county for dozens of hours of legal work on such cases as the celebrated “Ninja murder” case, when evidence indicated he was on vacation or pursuing outside interests.

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In one instance, Healey said, Newman billed the county for 25 hours of work on five 1989 cases while he was in custody for a drunk-driving conviction and was spending the time picking up brush for Caltrans along the county’s freeways. In another, the prosecutor alleged, he billed the county for 16 hours of trial preparation while he was on an all-day fishing trip in Mexico.

Court records show that Newman billed the county for every day in 1988, including holidays and the extra day for Leap Year. But Sanders, who plays baseball for the New York Yankees and football for the Atlanta Falcons, along with other professional athletes told the county grand jury in April that, for at least some of that year, Newman was wooing them in an attempt to enlist them as clients for his fledgling career as a sports agent.

On Nov. 26, for example, court records show that Newman billed the county for 12 hours of legal work at $100 an hour. But Sanders told the grand jury that Newman was at the Florida-Florida State football game in Tallahassee that day, watching Sanders, who at the time was a star on the Florida State Seminoles football team.

The grand jury heard similar stories from professional football players, including Hartlee Dykes, now of the New England Patriots, Eric Dwayne Hill of the Phoenix Cardinals and Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs.

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None of the athletes, however, signed with Newman, who later sued them to recover tens of thousands of dollars in what he said were loans, and what they said were gifts. The lawsuits ended without being resolved, although Sanders said he gave Newman $9,700.

Also key to the prosecution’s case is a woman who Newman listed on invoices as a law clerk working with him on county death penalty cases. The woman told the grand jury that she was not Newman’s law clerk and that on a number of days when he was billing the county for legal work in 1985 and 1987, he was vacationing with her in Las Vegas, Napa Valley and New York. Included in court records are ticket stubs and dated photographs of Newman and the woman riding the rapids in life jackets and tooling around Central Park in a carriage.

The court records, however, contain nothing of Newman’s side of the story, which he so far has presented only to judges in secret affidavits and private conferences. His contention that he cannot afford an attorney, for instance, has come up only once in open court, and he did not elaborate on the reasons, either in court documents or in interviews.

Defense attorneys spoke sadly of the fallout from the Newman case.

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“It stands out as a pretty big scandal,” said Howard Gillingham, co-chairman of the County Bar’s Indigent Criminal Defense Appointment Program.

“The Bar itself has tried to meet with lawyers and take people aside and be in their face about things,” Gillingham said. “And as far as abuse, I know the judges are looking more closely at the (billing) declarations.”

However, he stressed, Newman is among only a handful of lawyers--perhaps fewer than half a dozen--who bill the county for more than 2,000 hours a year.

“And lawyers in general are getting a pretty black eye over the the conduct of a handful.”

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