But the office was chronically understaffed and given no mandate of tough enforcement by the judges. More than 7,000 bills are submitted a year, and there was simply not enough time to investigate suspicious bills.
"To actually dig into the file -- it takes a long, long time, " said Hugo Benitez, an assistant county attorney who reviews the bills of court-appointed lawyers. "This is kind of like IRS audits. You have to do selective enforcement."
However, when court administrators found a questionable bill, they merely referred the problem to the lawyers, who were allowed to negotiate the contested amounts.
While the bills were usually shaved by a few hundred dollars, no action was ever taken against a lawyer who submitted an exorbitant or questionable bill.
Late in 1987, Benitez wrote a memo warning of "major problems" with accountability.
"There is not a sufficient audit of the motions submitted, one that would explore the basis for the fees being charged, " Benitez wrote to his superiors.
"The court administrator's office does not . . . perform an audit of the work underlying the motion or order, does not study the court files, and does not otherwise challenge the motion submitted or amounts requested."
Benitez suggested that the county hire an auditor to watch over the fees. His conservative estimate of the savings per year: $200,000.
"The policing function of the auditor would encourage more accurate time-keeping . . . resulting in fewer abuses and lower fees, " Benitez wrote.
But, with no public pressure for change, nothing was done.
By 1988, costs of the Dade system had doubled to $7 million a year in less than five years.
Attorney Arthur Huttoe billed county taxpayers $343,000 in 1988 alone -- more than the combined salaries of the county manager, the county attorney and the chief Dade judge.
The lawyers defend their fees by arguing that it's not all profit; they must use some of their money for office overhead. Still, critics object: "The taxpayers of Florida should not be in the business of subsidizing lawyers, " said Reno, the state attorney.
LOW RATES, BIG FEES
Lawyers sometimes handed off cases
At the county's below-market rates of $40 for out-of- court work and $50 in court, it appears mathematically impossible for a lawyer to be paid $343,000 a year. To earn that much, it would require billing more than 150 hours a week -- more than 20 hours a day every single day of the year.
Huttoe, a solo practitioner, did it by handing many of his cases to other lawyers, and then dividing the fees. At the time, no rules prohibited him from doing so.
Court officials knew what he was doing but allowed it.
Huttoe became the virtual chief of a mini-public defender's office in Dade County. The words "Law Offices of Arthur Huttoe, " appear on thousands of court documents -- with the signature of another lawyer above it -- just like the documents signed by Janet Reno's prosecutors and Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer's assistants.
"He always had more volume than he could personally handle, " said Joy Maxwell Carr, a lawyer who handled some of Huttoe's court-appointed cases. "He always worked with other lawyers on the cases."
Carr refused to say how Huttoe divided the fees.
The practice of handing off cases was prohibited by Dade's chief judge late last year, largely because of Huttoe.
Other high-volume lawyers made huge court-appointment fees working mainly alone.
How county was billed for 30.5-hour workday
Mastos and Maultasch say they were so busy they couldn't keep track of their hours as they worked. Instead, they waited weeks or even months before estimating their hours.
"I attempted to reconstruct as best as I could at the end of a week, or at the end of a second week, " Mastos said. "I guess it was careless."
One result: Mastos charged the county for 30 1/2 hours on a single day. It happened on Jan. 5, 1989 -- only the third day Mastos was on the job as a private lawyer after being voted off the bench in November 1988.
Mastos insisted that he worked those hours -- just not all on the same day.
"My situation is not a question of the work not being done, " he said. "I know the work was done. That is a lead-pipe cinch."
Mastos said he just had no idea how to bill after spending 15 years in government service.
"If there are mistakes, they are mistakes, " Mastos said. "I want to emphasize I didn't steal. I didn't pad."
In fact, Mastos said he probably made 10 mistakes on that 30 1/2-hour day. There were 10 hours billed on Jan. 5, 1989, which that he said he worked on other days. However, he cannot document precisely when he worked those hours.
"It was dumb, " he said. "It should have been much more precise."
On his 30 1/2-hour day, Mastos billed 10 1/2 hours for merely reproducing the same three routine legal documents in 10 separate cases. He billed at least an hour for each set of documents.
Mastos' admits he did not work an hour each time he billed an hour.
"This is a start-up fee, " Mastos said. "An initial cost for opening a file, having the secretary do these things, labels, putting a file into a system, handling a file over the life of the case."
Mastos said he asked civil and criminal lawyers about charging a start-up fee. They told him, "It is not an unrealistic charge, " he recalled. "I've discussed it with some of the judges and their feeling was, 'All this stuff costs money.' "
But court officials say that lawyers are only supposed to bill for the time they actually put in.
"An hour billed is supposed to be an hour worked, " said Phil Clark, supervisor of the court administrator's finance section.
When Mastos was told of the court administrator's position, he said, "That's a little pompous, isn't it?"
Court-appointment work pours in for attorneys
As soon as he began in private practice, Mastos was showered with court-appointment work from his former colleagues on the bench. He received so much work that he ended up billing 83 1/4 hours in his first week as a private lawyer -- even though he didn't begin until Tuesday. In his first nine weeks on the job, Mastos averaged billing 78 hours a week.
He conceded in a tape-recorded interview with The Herald that he did not work that long.
"I work, I estimate, 70 hours a week, " Mastos said. "I don't think I bill that many, but golly, I've worked that many."
Told that he had billed as many as 95 hours in a week, he said, "I would be surprised at that number. That's obviously high."
The first six months of 1989 were especially busy for Randy Maultasch, too.
"I was putting in 12 to 15 hours a day at that point, " he said.
He said he was also concerned about possible retribution from his dangerous clients and such pressures may have caused him to inadvertently overcharge county taxpayers.
"You might think that something took two hours when it really took 1 hour and 45 minutes or an hour-and-a-half, " he said.
But Maultasch's bills show more than minor discrepancies. He billed 34.5 hours on a single day and as many as 107 hours in one week. In all, Maultasch billed more than 24 hours on 18 days from March 1988 to June 1989.
NO PRECISE RECORD
'I didn't keep track of the hours I worked'
Like Mastos, Maultasch did not keep a precise record of the hours he had worked.
"I didn't have a computerized billing system, " he said. "I didn't keep track of the hours I worked in court."
Instead, he said, he relied on his memory and notes. "I became somewhat of an expert at knowing time."
Maultasch was able to bill more than 24 hours on one day by charging 17 hours for a six-minute hearing. His client, William Jones, pleaded no contest to a series of petty crimes, including car theft and dealing in stolen property.
For each of the cases against Jones, Maultasch submitted a separate bill, which is standard procedure. But on five of those bills, he charged the county anywhere from two to four- and-a-half hours for the same six-minute hearing.
That was a mistake, Maultasch said. "I should not have put that time in, " he said, acknowledging that he should have billed for the hearing on only one of his bills.
On that day, March 28, 1988, Maultasch charged the county for 21 1/4 hours of in-court time at $50 per hour. The courthouse is not open for business until 8 a.m.
"There was definitely time that overlapped that I wasn't aware of, " he said.
But Maultasch said it was an honest error.
"To be fair, look at your own taxes, " he said. "Look at your own billing practices. Look at the things that you can attribute to human error. That's all you've got."
Maultasch, like Mastos, insists he did nothing wrong.
"I'm a hard-working, honest attorney, " he said. "I know my cases. I put the time in.
"I'm not sitting here saying that . . . I never slept. That's ridiculous. That's something that I would never say."
Judges don't give court appointments to Maultasch anymore. Publicity about his high court-appointment earnings has made judges nervous about appointing him, he said.
He now runs the Ticket Defense Team, a stable of lawyers who handle hundreds of defendants charged with traffic infractions.
"I'm a volume kind of guy, " he said.
REFORMING THE SYSTEM
Officials agree on need for change
With court appointment fees spiraling out of control, everyone recognized by 1989 that the hourly billing system needed to be reformed. But the lawyers resisted.
"There was an awful lot of crabbing among the lawyers that, 'Oh my God, we're going to lose money, ' " Mastos said.
To eliminate some of the abuses of itemized billing, Dade's chief judge decided to employ a system of minimum fees -- a lawyer would merely check a box and receive his fee without accounting for his hours.
But this system allowed lawyers to make up to $240 a hour, nearly five times the previous rate. It also allowed attorneys to continue to get the same six-figure fees that they were making under the old system.
The only difference: There was no longer any way to check the hours they claimed to have worked.
Several lawyers continued to earn six-figure salaries from the system until June 1991, when Operation Court Broom -- the FBI's massive corruption investigation of Dade's criminal justice system -- jolted the Metro Justice Building.
Three Dade judges and a Miami attorney await trial in August on bribery and extortion charges. A federal grand jury is now focusing on some Miami lawyers suspected of paying cash kickbacks to Dade judges in exchange for court-appointed cases.
Former Dade Circuit Judge Roy Gelber, who was sentenced last week to 12 years, 7 months for bribery and extortion, said he appointed several lawyers as a payback for the $400,000 he raised for his 1988 election campaign.
"That's a lot of campaign debts to pay and this is how you pay them back, " Gelber said on an FBI tape.
Gelber, now a cooperating witness, has identified the lawyers to investigators, but their names remain secret.
Stung by the Court Broom scandal, Dade's judges scrambled to reform the system again.
In December 1991, they set a $75,000 limit on how much a lawyer could earn in a year. To spread the appointments around, they ordered judges to select from a list of at least 30 attorneys.
Last month, the judges quickly made further changes after they were told by The Herald about an array of itemized-billing abuses in 1988 and 1989.
Bills must now be submitted within 30 days after cases conclude. Bills for defendants with more than one case must be audited by the county attorney's office. Judges must now carefully peruse itemized bills.
Despite the reforms, some feel the system still is long on trust and short on accountability.
Critics of the system, including State Attorney Janet Reno, favor court-appointed lawyers with more public defenders.
"Somewhere down the line the system became bastardized, " said Marquess, the legal billing expert. "It is no longer an obligation on the county to the poor. It became a duty to subsidize these characters to the tune of exorbitant fees."