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6 Lawyers Pay $129,500 to Settle Overbilling Claims

May 23, 1986|PAUL FELDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Six Los Angeles defense attorneys have agreed to settlements totaling $129,500 for allegedly overbilling the county while representing indigent defendants, the district attorney's office announced Thursday.

In addition, the prosecutor's office has filed civil lawsuits against three other court-appointed defense attorneys who have refused to repay alleged overcharges of $58,000.

The actions come 14 months after county Auditor-Controller Mark H. Bloodgood disclosed that 64 court-appointed defense attorneys had apparently been overpaid more than $340,000.

30 Cases Under Review

During the interim, several of the attorneys reached direct settlements with Bloodgood's office, and about 30 of the cases are still under review, according to the district attorney's office.

In the six just-settled civil cases, the district attorney said, the defense attorneys cooperated with authorities but did not admit any wrongdoing or liability.

Still, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said, "I think it's clear that there was deliberate overbilling, plain and simple. And it happened, quite frankly, because of the careless attitude of the judges, who set up conditions under which one could get away with overbilling."

Reiner said criminal charges were not filed against the attorneys because "there isn't evidence sufficient to show criminal liability." Action cannot be taken against judges, he added, because "there is no law against carelessness."

Reiner said disclosure of abuses has nonetheless resulted in a tightening of standards for court-appointed attorneys, whose payments have risen to more than $25 million a year in Los Angeles County. Such attorneys represent clients when the Public Defender's Office cannot do so because of conflicts.

Attorneys' Repayments

The six attorneys who agreed to civil settlements--which included repayment of the funds, civil penalties and payments for investigative costs--are Antonio Luna of Los Angeles, $25,952; Marc A. Leftwich of Encino, $32,014; his brother, Curt Leftwich of Encino, $15,927; Eric B. Wexler of Los Angeles, $19,600; Rayford Fountain of Pasadena, $18,286, and John J. Nese of Eagle Rock, $17,812.

In some cases, the payments for investigative costs and civil penalties actually surpassed the repayments of the funds.

Civil lawsuits were filed against Michael Morse of Los Angeles, who allegedly overcharged $15,619 in 1983 and 1984; Richard E. Orozco of Fullerton, $23,370, and Raymond Newman of Los Angeles, $19,074.

Orozco said Thursday that the county's claim is incorrect and resulted from a misunderstanding of his billing procedures. Billings that auditors thought represented excessive in-court hours also included his charges for out-of-court work on the same cases, he said.

'Convenient Way of Billing'

"It was just a convenient way of billing," Orozco said. "We'll thrash it out (in court) and let the chips fall where they may."

Morse said that he would not "offer (authorities) one cent" in repayment because "the judges were well aware who was in court and how long."

"We are not hourly employees as the auditor's office seems to think we are," he said. "We are paid on a per-case basis."

One attorney who settled his bill directly with the county was Charles E. Lloyd, identified in another 1985 study as having received $352,000 in court-appointed fees between September, 1982, and December, 1983. Lloyd said his overpayments, which he returned to the county, amounted to $739.

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