Public defender's office disputes grand jury report
by Laura Braddick
lbraddick@mdjonline.com
May 09, 2011 07:05 PM | 5775 views | 12 12 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Office of the Circuit Defender in the Old Cobb County Courthouse. The office will soon be moving to the new courthouse building in Marietta. <br> Photo by Mike Jacoby
Office of the Circuit Defender in the Old Cobb County Courthouse. The office will soon be moving to the new courthouse building in Marietta.
Photo by Mike Jacoby
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MARIETTA — Days after the grand jury delivered sharp criticisms of the Circuit Defender’s Office finances, both Randy Harris, the administrator of that office, and his boss, Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron, say the figures the grand jury used are not accurate.

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.
Comments
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el paso
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May 18, 2011
Attorneys earn less than 20% of their normal hourly rate, in order to represent indigent defendants. The amount paid barely covers an attorney's overhead per hour to maintain an office and secretary. If the amounts are reduced, attorneys would have no reason to handle the cases.
Cobb Citizen
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May 14, 2011
This Grand Jury has become the joke of Cobb County.
In the Legal World
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May 10, 2011
The first thing that comes to light is "walk a mile in their shoes". The attorney's that handle the "panel" cases are paid VERY little to do so. It is more like charity that anything else. What they receive generally covers or barely covers in most cases their admin expenses. To tell them they can not do both a panel case and a contract case is just the same as anyone telling the rest of you how to run your business. Unless you are in this world, it is difficult to have a true understanding of how it not only works but what it really costs the tax payer. Our constitution guarantees certain rights and one of those is equal representation. There are no easy fixes, unless you can find a way for folks not to screw up and commit crimes. However, if you do that, then you put folks out of a job, actually a lot of folks out of job. Bottom line, there are no winners to this issue.
SPLOST WRONG
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May 10, 2011
If they had told us the county was in such dire financial straits before the SPLOST vote, I would not have voted for SPLOST. I feel betrayed. Now, the county is trying to raise our costs and cut services in almost every way imaginable; I didn't know they were such poor managers. How can we trust them to efficiently manage the SPLOST money.

With regard to the contract and panel attorneys, I know attorneys think they should make a lot of money, but not off my back. It seems to be double dipping to be a contract attorney in one courtroom and also bill the Circuit Defender's office for being a panel attorney in a different courtroom, whether on the same day or whenever. I bet those people are making bill bucks. Since they are being paid with public funds, the grand jury should disclose how much each of them is making, and that should be investigated. The grand jury is there to protect us, and people should not be allowed to double dip on our tax dollar. Contract attorneys should not be allowed to be panel attorneys; that should be written in their contracts. If those people are decent attorneys, they shouldn't have to rely on my tax dollar to make so much of their living any way. They should earn their keep with good ole fashion hard work, as I do, and not try and subsist on welfare. Let me know who those attorneys are; I want to make sure I don't personally hire them for anything.
Concerned Taxpayer
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May 10, 2011
With the budget crisis the county is in, as a tax paying citizen I would like for these contracts to be made public so we know who, how much and what we are paying. The numbers seem to be all over the place. The 500,000 from the state is a drop in the bucket for these kind of numbers. I assume all this indigent defense is coming out of the general fund? Maybe the county should not have "opted out" and just be a state run public defender.
Oldster
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May 10, 2011
Has anyone in government ever heard of an "outside audit"? That is the kind where you bring in non-employees, professional auditing and accounting firms to take a look at accounting practices and how the books are kept. Even good companies with good internal audit staff bring in outsiders.

Yes, tax payers would pay for it but it would help to bring some trust back to what our local government is doing.

The Grand Jury was doing its job. We ought to be miffed that the circuit Defenders Office didn't completely and forthrightly give the GJ the information they requested.
Just Wait
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May 10, 2011
The really pitty is that the tax payers have to pay to defend criminals in the first place. Let the guilty pay for it by adding another fee to all fines.
Tax Payer
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May 10, 2011
Harris is mishandling the truth, as usual.
More to the story
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May 10, 2011
I also believe the report said that the Public Defenders Office has also failed to collect the $50 fee that all the other counties collect at the tune of a loss of $877,500 per year. If we are operating at budget shortfall in Cobb Cnty and shutting down Senior Ctrs and reducing county services to make up the budget, wouldn't it be wise not to 'dismiss' the Grand Jury findings and actually investigate it further? Of course Randy Harris is going to say the Grand Jury got the figures wrong. The Grand Jury themselves said that he failed to provide them concise and complete information, which is why they also suggested in their presentment that the next Grand Jury continue the investigation.

@ annonymous, you seem rather obnoxious yourself to make that statement.
Kennesaw Mom
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May 10, 2011
This GJ was biased and reckless. They need to be individually hauled in front of another grand jury and treated to a dose of their own medicine.
Bleak House
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May 10, 2011
The word in the legal community is cronyism and favoritism on payments.

A real audit, and not some phony window dressing, could well weave an interesting tale.
anonymous
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May 09, 2011
Hey, isn't this grand jury loaded with obnoxious Cobb school workers? Do you really expect them to get things right?
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