DES MOINES | State Auditor Mary Mosiman issued a report Thursday alleging contracted Iowa attorneys improperly billed the State Public Defender's Office for hours and miles they claimed for reimbursement in representing indigent defendants over a four-year period that ended in August 2013.
Mosiman said a special investigation conducted by her office identified $311,183 of disbursements to 11 private attorneys who billed the State Public Defender’s Office for more than 12 hours in a single day, and 13 attorneys who improperly claimed reimbursement for mileage.
Warren Jenkins, chief deputy state auditor, said the probe turned up evidence that some attorneys allegedly over-billed the state for hours in excess of the work performed and sought reimbursement for mileage costs that were not actually incurred.
The attorneys cited in the 349-page report included Jennifer Meyer, Joanie Grife, Dennis Mathahs, Richard Buffington, Jason Hauser, David Pargulski, Nathaniel Tagtow, Steven Clarke, Laura Lockwood, Jane White, Katharine Strickler, Magdalena Reese and Matthew Noel, according to the auditor’s office.
Mosiman said it was impossible for state auditors to determine if additional amounts were disbursed to the attorneys for days which exceeded 12 hours because certain claims were not readily available.
In addition, she reported, it was not possible to determine if specific activities — such as phone calls, research and preparing documents — were accurately reported by each attorney. Also, the state auditor’s office could not determine whether the length of time reported by the attorneys was reasonable for every case.
Disbursements that were identified included $45,582 paid to the attorneys for 50 days for which they individually claimed 24 hours or more in a single day; $51,912 for 90 days for which they individually claimed at least 20 but less than 24 hours in a single day; $116,988 for 390 days for which they individually claimed more than 15 but less than 20 hours in a single day; and $51,954 for 612 days for which they individually claimed more than 12 but not more than 15 hours in a single day, according to the auditor’s report. The disbursements identified include only the amount paid to the attorneys for more than 12 hours for a single day, she noted.
Overall, the auditor’s office raised concerns about $266,436 in disbursements for hourly legal work.
Mosiman reported the disbursements identified also included nearly $41,345 for mileage improperly claimed by the attorneys and $3,402 of other improper payments. The attorneys claimed mileage to the same destination for 750 days, which resulted in payments for 1,588 duplicate trips, she said.
Mosiman noted that seven attorneys — Mathahs, Strickler, Clarke, Lockwood, White, Reese and Tagtow — repaid the State Public Defender’s Office for excess mileage and other expenses included on claims they submitted. The repayments from the attorneys totaled about $12,253.
The mileage claimed was not allocated among the cases, she noted. Instead, the attorneys claimed the full amount of mileage for each case as if the case was the only one for which they traveled to the destination that day.
The special investigation was requested by the State Public Defender — an administratively attached unit of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals which coordinates the provision of legal representation to indigent persons — as a result of concerns regarding claims submitted by certain contract attorneys. The auditor’s office examined the period from July 1, 2009, through Aug. 31, 2013.
In her report, Mosiman included recommendations to strengthen internal controls at the State Public Defender Office, such as improvements to policies and procedures established to ensure amounts claimed are appropriate. Recommended improvements include tracking hours claimed by day and ensuring additional costs, such as mileage, are properly allocated between cases.
State Public Defender Sam Langholz said the state auditor’s findings confirmed his own review that had identified attorneys engaged in improper billing practices.
"This thorough report supports the conclusions of our internal review that led me to cancel the indigent defense contracts of eight of the attorneys included in the report. It also supports the proactive changes that we have already implemented to detect and prevent further improper billing by indigent defense contract attorneys," said Langholz.
The State Public Defender said earlier this year his office adopted new administrative rules establishing additional safeguards, such as capping the number hours that an attorney can bill in a day and requiring more detailed itemized time and expense reimbursement records.
Langholz added that his office continues to engage in regular aggregate reviews of claims submitted by attorneys and in the near future will be moving to an online claim system that will enable the office to track in real-time the hours and expenses that an attorney is billing on particular days.
Legal representation for indigent Iowans is provided through State Public Defender Offices or through private attorneys who either contract with the state public defender or who are appointed by the court.
Mosiman said copies of the report have been filed with county attorney offices in Dubuque, Fayette, Iowa, Marshall, and Polk counties as well as the Iowa Attorney General’s Office and the state Division of Criminal Investigation to determine whether criminal charges are warranted or whether the matter should be referred to the Iowa Supreme Court’s attorney disciplinary board.