To pin down all of the hours claimed by the attorneys, The Herald compiled more than 30,000 billable hours and reviewed 500 case files.
Each hour of each bill had to be tabulated on a yearly calendar before it became apparent that lawyers were claiming they had worked more than 24 hours in a day.
"More than 24 hours in a day? That's a good trick, " said James W. McRae, an expert on legal fees for the American Bar Association. "I have never heard of anything like this before."
"This kind of billing is just nauseating, " said Orange County Circuit Judge James C. Hauser, author of the three-volume Attorneys Fees in Florida.
After The Herald presented its findings in March to Dade court officials, they promised tougher enforcement and enacted changes in billing procedures.
"We are very concerned about these findings, " Administrative Judge Joseph Farina said. "This is taxpayer money."
For years, everyone in the criminal justice system -- judges, lawyers, court officials -- suspected some bill- padding was going on. But they did not know the extent of it because they never totaled and cross-referenced the hours in each bill.
As a result, Dade's $7 million-a-year court-appointment system that pays lawyers to handle 7,000 cases a year is roughly equal to the budgets for the public defender's offices in Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and St. Petersburg, which each handled more than 55,000 cases a year.
Judges failed to get tough with lawyers
The root cause of Dade's runaway court-appointment system: Judges failed to hold lawyers accountable for their work. The reason: The cozy relationship between judges and lawyers -- judges give lawyers court appointments, lawyers give judges campaign contributions.
"It's one thing to hire your friends if they can do the job responsibly, ethically and fairly, " Marquess said. "When you hire your friends and you don't hold them accountable, that is wrong and a damnable failure to the public trust."
Three lawyers who billed more than 24 hours in a single day deny that they did anything wrong. All three -- Ted Mastos, Randy Maultasch and Manuel Crespo -- blamed their own sloppy record-keeping. In several instances, they say they hired other lawyers to help them do the work.
Still, they cannot document that the work was done.
Lawyers also blame a system without clear rules for billing.
"The county, in a way, dropped the ball here, " said lawyer Mastos, a former judge who was paid $133,000 last year from court appointments. "It just didn't start when I got started. It has been going on for years."
The three lawyers say they did the work on days other than the ones listed on their bills.
"There's a great deal of difference between poor record- keeping and out-and-out fraud, " said Mastos, who billed 30 1/ 2 hours on Jan. 5, 1989. "My God, I didn't think at any time of trying to defraud the county."
Maultasch and Crespo acknowledged that they overcharged the county in some instances because they couldn't keep track of their hours.
Randy Maultasch said he was "shocked" when he learned from The Herald that he had billed 34 1/2 hours on Jan. 9, 1989.
"I didn't work 24 hours in a day, " said Maultasch, who made $169,357 from court appointments last year. "You can say that there was an honest error made. I never intended to over-bill the county for a dollar."
Manuel Crespo, a member of the Florida Bar's board of governors, refunded $600 in overcharges found by The Herald and pledged to change his billing practices.