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Attorneys for poor probed

The Dade state attorney and the Florida Bar started investigations Tuesday of a court appointment system that paid some lawyers for work they did not do.

County commissioners, the chief judge and others promised swift reforms.

"I'm a taxpayer, and I'm indignant, " Metro Commissioner Joe Gersten said. "This is an obvious misuse of taxpayer dollars."

The investigations were sparked by a three-part Miami Herald series, Friends of the Court, that showed how some lawyers representing poor defendants overbilled taxpayers. In at least 55 instances, the lawyers billed more than 24 hours in a single day.

"The system should be audited, " State Attorney Janet Reno said.

Reno's organized-crime prosecutors will review hundreds of bills submitted by the highest paid lawyers. The prosecutors will decide whether to file criminal charges.

Metro-Dade government leaders, who have paid the bills for years, said they were outraged. Strapped for funds, they have had to cut programs for the poor at the same time private lawyers were making six-figure annual incomes by overcharging the taxpayers.

Gersten called for a task force to investigate how to limit court-appointment costs. Gersten, head of Metro's Finance Committee, also said he would press to recover the money by suing the lawyers.

Meanwhile, the Florida Bar on Tuesday opened investigations of the lawyers named in the Herald series. If wrongdoing is found, the Bar can impose a wide range of disciplinary measures, including suspension and disbarment.

"We are very interested in looking into this, " said lawyer Jacquelyn Needelman, who supervises the Miami office of the Florida Bar. "Any time there is an allegation of possible misconduct by an attorney, we look into it."

Dade judicial leaders promised on Tuesday to reexamine the county's court-appointment system, which they have changed twice in the past year.

Dade's 400 court-appointed lawyers earned nearly $7 million in the last budget year for handling 6,836 cases. By comparison, the annual budget for the Broward public defender's office is $7.1 million, but its lawyers handled 55,200 cases.

"We intend to remedy the situation, " said Leonard Rivkind, Dade's chief judge. "We do intend to correct all those things that were mentioned in the article that all need to be corrected."

Rivkind, Dade's top administrative judges and the president of the Dade County Bar Association are forming a committee to consider other ways to pay for lawyers for the poor.

"I think the abuses of the system that have been outlined are very serious, " Dean Colson, president of the Dade Bar Association, said Tuesday. "There may be a need for some interim corrections or temporary solutions."

Colson said he hopes the committee comes up with a solution quickly. "What we don't need is a committee that will study this problem for a year, " he said.

Several leading Dade officials called for the overhaul of the court-appointment system.

"If attorneys are accidentally or intentionally double- billing or triple-billing, obviously the system has to be changed, " Acting U.S. Attorney James McAdams said. "The losers are the taxpayers."

Commissioner Gersten said private lawyers should not depend on public money for their salaries.

"If a private lawyer wants to be a professional public defender, he should just go join the public defender's office, " Gersten said.

County Attorney Robert Ginsburg said his assistants have tried for years to control spiraling costs by appearing before Dade's judges to ask that fees be slashed for court-appointed lawyers.

But the judges almost always rule against the county, he said. "We are persona non grata in the courtroom."

The revelations come at a time when South Florida's legal community is reeling from several scandals. Three Dade judges and a former judge face an August trial on bribery and extortion charges.

"People are just shocked, " said Colson, the Bar president. "It's been a tough year for the legal profession in this community.

"The legal profession has taken it on the chin -- and deservedly so in several instances."

Herald Staff Writer Dexter Filkins contributed to this report.

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