The jurors concluded, among other things, that the office overspent its budget by nearly $3 million, which Harris disputes.
“I have no idea where the grand jury got their information,” Harris told the Journal via email. “There is no indication in the presentment that they spoke to our budget analyst.”
But the grand jury also said in its report that Harris’ office “failed to provide … concise and complete information” in a timely manner.
The circuit defender’s office handles defense of indigent people charged with crimes. The office has 20 “contract” attorneys, who are independent contractors paid a set fee to handle cases for a particular courtroom, regardless of the number of cases, Charron said.
The office also has a list of more than 200 private attorneys who represent individual indigent defendants and bill the county by the hour for those cases. Those are known as “panel” attorneys.
The grand jury found several problems in the office, including the fact that attorneys may work a panel case in one courtroom while being paid as a contract attorney in another on the same day.
Also, the grand jury concluded that the circuit defender’s office went over budget by nearly $3 million to pay panel attorneys in fiscal year 2010. While the circuit defender’s officer had budgeted $5.2 million for panel attorneys that year, it actually spent $8.1 million, jurors wrote.
But Harris says that is incorrect, and sent the Journal a chart showing his office’s expenses going back 12 years.
“As you can see, total legal fees expended for FY10 indicate that $5,113,508.00 were expended in legal fees, not $8.1 million,” Harris said.
The jury also concluded that the cost-savings of using contract attorneys “were grossly overstated in examples provided to us.”
Still, the jury found there are some savings. In State Court, which has five contract attorneys, the cost for those contracts is about $330,000 per year, whereas using panel attorneys instead would cost almost $370,000.
Among its recommendations, the grand jury wrote that attorneys should not be allowed to work both contract-attorney duties and as panel attorneys on the same day.
Jurors also suggested that the office should be “fully investigated and audited on the grounds of financial information and record-keeping processes,” and that the office should be reviewed twice each year by future grand juries.
Cobb County opted out of the State Public Defenders system eight years ago and receives $500,000 from the state each year to help run the circuit defenders program. Harris’ office has a total annual budget of $5.2 million for this fiscal year, a county spokesman said.
The rest of the office’s income comes from the county. Chairman Tim Lee said Monday that he had not yet read the grand jury’s report and could not say what actions, if any, would be taken.
A tripartite committee — made up of Harris, a member of the Cobb Bar, and a county employee — has binding power over the circuit defender’s office and was already implementing changes while the grand jury was investigating. Local attorney Joel Pugh and Latona Thomas, who heads the county’s Internal Audit office, are the other two members of the committee.
Pugh, who was among those interviewed by the jury, also declined to comment.