Booted off the bench by voters after a bruising re-election campaign, former Dade Circuit Judge Theodore Mastos began his new life as a private attorney with no clients and no experience.
On the first Tuesday of 1989, he walked into the Metro Justice Building with an empty briefcase, some freshly minted business cards and a new legal pad that his wife had given him for Christmas.
"After 15 years of public service, I was out of a job, " Mastos said. "I began Jan. 3, 1989, in a totally new world.
"I had no safety net."
Except for 20 close friends and former colleagues wearing black robes.
The judges eased Mastos' transition into the private sector with public money -- a windfall of work rarely lavished on one lawyer.
Indeed, the judges gave Mastos lots of work and more money than he had ever made before.
Mastos charged the county for 83 1/4 hours that first week, making more than $3,500. By the end of the first month, he had received court appointments in 48 cases for which he was eventually paid $52,345.
By the end of his first 13 months, he made more than $160,000 in taxpayer dollars -- more than double his annual judge's salary.
"I was very blessed, " he said.
Mastos and a number of other court-appointed lawyers have been blessed by a system that allows them to submit bills that are rarely challenged by the judges who sign them. The bills are never audited by the county administrators who sign the checks.
As a result, the private lawyers made six-figure incomes, even though they were being paid to protect the rights of poor criminal defendants at the county's low hourly rate of $40 out- of-court and $50 in-court.
It seems mathematically -- and humanly -- impossible. But Mastos and some of the others were able to do it by inflating or grossly over-estimating the hours they worked. In some cases, lawyers got paid for doing no work at all.
THE FAVORED FEW
A friend on the bench is a big help
For many of Dade's criminal lawyers, court appointments are their livelihood. Dozens of lawyers, young and old, descend on the Metro Justice Building every Monday morning, when the judges' calendars are crowded with defendants awaiting trial.
In the hallways, the lawyers eagerly scan the judges' schedules looking for cases that will likely develop "conflicts" -- circumstances where the public defenders must drop out and the cases are up for grabs. In the courtroom, the lawyers jostle for position, filling the seats in the first few rows, chatting with the clerks and the bailiffs, competing for the judge's eye.
Once in a while, a judge's favorite lawyer strolls in late, nods toward the bench and hears his name called for a lucrative case. The front row sags.
The lawyers jockey for appointments because they present the courthouse's best chance to make good money for doing relatively little work. Only 3 percent of the cases go to trial.
The lawyers who get the most work are the ones with the most friends on the bench.
A Herald study showed that the five lawyers who made the most money from the system -- Mastos, Arthur Huttoe, Randy Maultasch, Mayra Trinchet-Martinez and Arthur Carter -- each repeatedly billed for more than 24 hours of legal work in a single day.
After The Herald alerted court officials of its findings, Dade's Chief Judge Leonard Rivkind and Administrative Judge Joseph Farina quickly revamped the system with stricter measures intended to keep lawyers from racking up huge fees.