DES MOINES (AP) — Contracts with five attorneys working as public defenders have been terminated after their billing practices were questioned, State Public Defender Sam Langholz said Thursday.
In one case, auditors said in a report released Thursday, Spencer attorney Ney McDaniel overbilled more than $177,000, saying he worked more than 24 hours in a single day during 80 days from August 2007 through March 2011. Anything over 12 hours in a single day is considered an improper disbursement.
“Obviously it was not possible Mr. McDaniel worked more than 24 hours within a day,” the auditors concluded. McDaniel, 60, also improperly filed for more than $6,000 in mileage, the auditors said.
Langholz said McDaniel's contract was terminated soon after the unusual claims were identified, “to limit any further loss of public funds.”
McDaniel declined to comment and referred calls to his attorney, David Brown. Brown said McDaniel will respond to the allegations once he's had an opportunity to review the report.
“Ney has represented literally dozens and dozens of people in northwest Iowa very well for quite a while and provided legal representation when no one else in that area would,” Brown said. “Some people dedicate their life to the practice of criminal law and a lot of people don't. I think they ought to be commended, not condemned.”
Langholz said McDaniel was “an extraordinary outlier,” but noted that several other attorneys “raised similar concerns.” The other attorneys also sought payment for several days in which they said they had worked 24 hours or more and others with extremely long hours, he said.
Attorneys contracted as public defenders are paid between $60 and $70 an hour depending on the criminal charge and can file for 35 cents per mile for driving to represent clients and other expenses. Public defenders represent clients who are charged with crimes and cannot afford an attorney, children in juvenile court cases and children in abusive homes needing court assistance.
Langholz's office, a division of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, is installing new software to enable attorneys to electronically submit claims, which will allow the office to track the hours and expenses billed each day, he said in a statement.
“I am disappointed that any attorneys would engage in these practices at the expense of the indigent Iowans needing these critical legal services,” he said.
He said the vast majority of contract attorneys submit accurate and honest claims.
Other contracts terminated included those with David Pargulski and Jason Hauser of the Pargulski, Hauser & Clarke law firm in Des Moines. A message left at their offices was not immediately returned.
Dennis Mathahs of Marengo said his contract expired in May and was not renewed. He said extraordinary circumstances involving a murder case caused a stressful environment in his office and records weren't as meticulously kept as they should have been.
“I never charged for work I didn't do,” he said. “I've got a good work reputation and I work hard to maintain it. I've never had a problem like this before.”
Richard Buffington of Oelwein asked for his contract to be terminated in June. Langholz told him in a letter obtained by the Associated Press that if he had not requested that, Langholz would have ended it. Buffington said Thursday that he had no comment.
The audit report released Thursday shows that McDaniel, whose private practice is in Spencer, took in $1.1 million from 2005 through March 2011, when his contract was terminated.
Clay County Attorney Michael Houchins turned over information to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and state public defender officials after he found that McDaniel was billing significantly more than other public defenders. He did this while preparing his annual budget in early 2011, and that led to the state audit and a closer look at billings by other contracted attorneys.
Houchins said he was shocked to discover McDaniel's billing. The Iowa Attorney General's Office, which is considering whether to file criminal charges, did not immediately respond to a message.
Iowa State Bar Association President Guy Cook said in a statement that five cases among more than 8,000 attorneys in Iowa are “an isolated aberration.”
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