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Lawyers' Billing Abuses May Have Cost County $1.5 Million

May 17, 1990|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Court-appointed attorneys may have overbilled Los Angeles County by as much as $1.5 million during the last two years, according to a county audit.

Among the examples of possible abuses was the case of top-paid lawyer Ray Newman, who billed the county for working on cases every day last year, including weekends and holidays, Tyler McCauley, chief of the auditor-controller's audit division, said Wednesday.

Newman earned more than $1 million in 1988 and 1989 by handling county cases. But auditors could not say how much of that--if any--would be considered overbilling.

Newman could not be reached for comment. He was among 10 attorneys sued by the district attorney in 1986 for allegedly overbilling the county. He recently settled the case for $25,511 without admitting wrongdoing, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Healey, who added, "We are looking at Ray again."

In a report to the Board of Supervisors, Mark Bloodgood, the county's auditor-controller, said that a review of the billings of the highest-paid court-appointed attorneys shows that "in spite of a concerted effort by the courts to monitor billings, attorneys are continuing to submit billings which indicate clear evidence of abuse."

Bloodgood said his review found attorneys who claimed payments for working 21-hour days, counseling clients about their marriages and being in court on weekends and holidays when the courts are usually closed.

Private attorneys are appointed by judges to defend indigents if public defenders are unavailable or in cases where there is a conflict of interest. They submit bills to judges who approved them and pass them on to the county for payment.

The county last year spent nearly $29 million for court-appointed lawyers. Of that, $5.6 million went to 18 of the highest-paid court-appointed attorneys. A few of them, including Newman, collected more from the county than the defense lawyers assigned to the lengthy McMartin Pre-School molestation case, according to records.

Auditors arrived at the figure of $1.5 million by checking to see which attorneys exceeded the "generally accepted criterion of a maximum of 2,000 billable hours per year," Bloodgood said. More than half of the 18 attorneys billed the courts about $1.5 million over that benchmark for 1988 and 1989, Bloodgood said.

"In our opinion, it is highly unlikely that an attorney can work 3,000, 4,000 or as high as 5,000 billable hours in one year as is indicated on some of the attorneys' claims," Bloodgood said.

Bloodgood said that in some cases where attorneys lumped dates and services together, "the judges should be more carefully reviewing the claims."

Bloodgood said his office is conducting a further investigation and will seek reimbursement for any overbillings. He will submit a final report to the supervisors by July 31.

In the suits filed in 1986 for alleged overbilling, eight attorneys agreed to settlements totaling $155,000. Two cases are pending.

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