They labor for Dade's poor

 

Miami Herald Staff

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.

But the system of itemized billing, resulting in individual lawyers charging as much as 39 hours in a day and 164 hours in a week, continued unchecked for most of the past decade.

"It is simply disgraceful, " said John Marquess, the chairman of Legalgard Inc., a Philadelphia-based investigative firm that scrutinizes legal bills. Marquess reviewed more than 50 bills -- and five billing patterns -- for The Herald.

"There is no justification for this kind of billing, " he said. "It is clear these lawyers are not fulfilling an obligation to the public, but are simply trying to make as much money as they can. They gouged the public."

Huttoe, Trinchet and Carter did not respond to The Herald's multiple requests to discuss their bills.

Huttoe's situation is unique. He openly assigned his cases to other lawyers during the period reviewed by The Herald. The practice is now prohibited, but at the time there were no rules against it.

His use of other lawyers makes it far more difficult to pin down his hours.

Mastos and Maultasch sat down for extensive interviews. Both men said their 24-plus-hour days resulted from slipshod record-keeping.

Mastos, for example, billed 30 1/2 hours on only his third day on the job and now cannot document that he actually worked those hours. Still, he insists that he did all the work and merely put the hours on the wrong day.

"This was a new experience, " Mastos said. "My record- keeping was not good, not as good as it should have been. But God, when you look at the dollar figures here, there's no one ripping anybody off."

Overall, the lawyers differed greatly in their billing practices. Lawyers representing co-defendants who faced identical charges sometimes produced bills more than double their co-counsels.

Some lawyers, like Trinchet, billed for hundreds of hours of legal research; others, like Mastos, did not.

One lawyer, Antonio Marin, even billed county taxpayers for the time he spent preparing 43 bills. The county paid him $1,550.

Several lawyers who agreed to talk to The Herald also blamed billing problems on Dade County's failure to provide clear guidelines for them to follow.

Mastos snapped, "For some bureaucrat in the county three years later in the wake of Court Broom and everything else to suddenly start trying to nail lawyers to the wall because nobody has the vision or foresight three years ago and five years ago and 10 years ago to say, 'Look, this is county money.' That's outrageous."

Mastos said he never asked county officials to spell out the billing rules for him. He did ask for advice from a few of his lawyer friends.

"That's one of the first questions I asked, parenthetically, when I left the bench: 'How do you bill? How do you set these fees?'

"And some of the answers I got were very, very wide- ranging. One guy said, 'Well, if a guy is driving a car or if he's wearing a watch, you haven't charged enough.' "

But Mastos said he didn't take his friend's advice. "You can see from my fees that I have not gouged anybody, " he said. "I don't gouge people."

The Herald study uncovered some clear billing patterns. A half-dozen lawyers used some of the following methods to transform a legal system for the poor into a lucrative, publicly-financed business:

'BOILERPLATING'
Charges repeated for same documents

Many lawyers used billing for "boilerplate" documents as an easy way to make money. They charged over and over again for "preparing" and filing the same routine legal documents.

To file, most lawyers mail documents to the clerk's office.

Maultasch, Trinchet-Martinez and Marin -- three of the biggest money-making lawyers -- reproduced and signed a simple, one-page document from case to case.

In the space of a single page, the document notified the court that a defendant was pleading not guilty, and several other routine motions.

Since at least 1984, Maultasch has been charging one hour in each of his cases for preparing and filing a boilerplate document. In 1988-1989 alone, he made more than $3,000 for preparing and filing it.

Trinchet often charges 45 minutes for "preparing" the document. On May 6, 1987, Trinchet billed 6 hours and 45 minutes for reproducing it in 10 separate cases for one defendant, Marcello Varona.

On that day, Trinchet managed to bill the county for a total of 20 hours of legal work and still find the time to speak at Judge Catherine Pooler's investiture.

Mastos billed 10 times for reproducing the same three routine documents in 10 separate cases on the same day, running up 10 1/2 billable hours. Mastos said he charged an hour for each document even though it didn't take him an hour because he considered it a "start-up" fee.

"If you bill me three hours for something that took 2 1/2 hours, that is padding, " Marquess said. "But when you bill me 10 hours for something that clearly took you an hour, that is way beyond bill-padding. That is way beyond sloppy time-keeping.

"That's fraud."

THE WAITING GAME
Minutes become hours on bills

Lawyers regularly billed two to four hours for routine plea hearings that took mere minutes to resolve in court.

Lawyers are allowed to bill for waiting time, but The Herald found that several lawyers regularly charged from two to seven hours every time they stepped into a courtroom -- even for proceedings that lasted only a few minutes.

Maultasch charged for seven hours of court-time before noon on May 1, 1989 -- meaning court would have had to start at 5 a.m. that day. "I have never heard of court being in session at that time of the morning, " said John Hogan, a chief assistant state attorney for State Attorney Janet Reno.

Maultasch says he made a mistake because he wasn't keeping track of his hours as he worked them.

Ray Badini, a lawyer who handled some court-appointed cases for Huttoe, billed seven hours for a brief hearing that occurred on Oct. 24, 1988. He charged four hours in the morning, and three more hours in the afternoon -- even though the hearing started at 1:30 p.m. and lasted less than 15 minutes, the transcript shows.

MISSING IN ACTION
Being absent still pays off

On Sept. 8, 1988, Trinchet billed 3 hours and 15 minutes for two depositions that she did not attend, according to records in the court file.

The two depositions lasted 35 minutes, the transcripts show. The court-appointed lawyer for a co-defendant, Gerardo A. Remy Jr., took the depositions and billed the county only one hour, or $40.

That was $90 less than Trinchet was paid for not being there.

Trinchet and Remy's case involved three men who were arrested trying to take property away from another man in a parking lot.

Trinchet's final bill for the case was $2,127.50.

That was more than double Remy's bill of $950.

An assistant public defender represented the third co- defendant. The office's average cost of handling a case: $130.

In another case, Trinchet billed -- and was paid -- twice. The defendant, Rodney Durant, was a petty thief. In May 1988, she charged $2,270 for representing Durant in a case that ended with a plea bargain after just three weeks. In February 1989, she submitted a second bill for $1,725.

It is unknown whether Trinchet ever refunded the county's money. She refused to answer written questions from The Herald about the Durant case.

Badini, filling in for Huttoe, failed to attend the plea hearing for one of Huttoe's defendants, court records show. Huttoe billed three hours for the hearing.

FARM TEAMS
Business passed down to other lawyers

Huttoe, the leader in court appointment fees with more than $1.4 million since 1983, couldn't have done it without farming out his cases to other lawyers.

Since Huttoe refused to be interviewed, it is unknown how much he finally made.

In any case, Huttoe's largess with court appointments was not against the rules at the time.

MULTIPLE BILLING
Cases involving same defendant a boon

Maultasch billed a total of 17 hours in five separate bills for attending the same six-minute hearing involving a car thief.

A mistake, he said, due to bad record-keeping.

Maultasch also billed a total of 28 hours in five separate bills for retrieving and copying five cases files from the Public Defender's office.

Another mistake.

"I suppose now I can look back and say, 'I should have been doing everything right, ' " Maultasch said.

Mastos said multiple billing definitely is not right.

He cited his own example: a defendant he represented who had 10 separate residential burglary cases. Mastos billed $1,860 for all 10 cases -- or $186 for each case, far below the $2,500 per case limit.

"If I was the kind of person that was going to pad bills and rip the county off, that was the case to do it, " he said. "That case had a billing capability, or capacity, of $25,000."

When he submitted his 10 bills to Dade Circuit Judge David Tobin for approval, Mastos recalled that "Dave said, 'Ted, you didn't bill hardly anything on this.'

"I said, 'Look. You have one or two cops. You have all homeowners. The guy had confessed. There is absolutely no point in milking the county.' "

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