Attorney Noe was CONVICTED of stealing and sentenced to 1-year in prison only to be changed to PROBATION. SO what?
Four private attorneys paid by Iowa to represent poor defendants have been convicted of crimes linked to overbilling the state, including some who initially claimed they had worked more than 24-hour shifts, a Des Moines Register review of state records shows.
The convictions are the result of state audits from 2013 and 2014 that identified 14 attorneys whom the auditor said had made excessive billings or mileage reimbursement claims that cost the state nearly $500,000 during a nearly five-year period that ended in August 2013.
At least two of the four convicted attorneys are still practicing law.
The other 10 — including one who is now an administrative law judge for the state — were not criminally charged but repaid some or all of the overbillings, Iowa records show.
Matthew Louis Noel: A Clinton attorney the audits found had improperly billed more than $17,403 in mileage or excessive hours. Noel, now 42, pleaded guilty to two counts of serious misdemeanor theft. He was sentenced to a year of prison in July 2017, which was suspended and instead placed on a year of probation and ordered to repay $14,697. His law license is active, state records show. Noel declined to comment.
Database: Iowa court-appointed attorney pay
Most of the cases that were not prosecuted involved bookkeeping errors rather than intentional efforts to defraud the indigent defense network, said Kurt Swaim, a former state representative and first assistant public defender for the state.
“It’s not fair to paint everybody who listed in the auditor’s reports with the same brush,” Swaim said. “Some of them pled guilty to serious felony-level criminal offenses. And some ranged to all the way to innocence or minor filing errors.”
The attorneys so far have been ordered by courts or voluntarily have agreed to repay more than $250,000 of the nearly $489,000 identified in overbooked hours by the state auditor.
Iowa continues to seek restitution of more than $100,000 in one case and repayment in multiple cases that did not involve criminal charges, Swaim said.
Marengo Attorney Dennis Mathahs was one of the 10 identified by the audits who was not criminally charged. The audit found more than $36,000 for hours billed in excess of 12 hours in a single day and almost $12,000 for improper mileage reimbursements.
Mathahs attributed the problems to careless bookkeeping by a former assistant. The mileage wasn’t properly calculated to each individual case, resulting in overpayments, he said.
Mathahs reimbursed the state almost $10,000, almost entirely for the mileage, state records show.
He said he self-reported the issues to the Iowa Attorney Disciplinary Board in 2013. The board’s public records indicate it has not acted on the matter, which Mathahs confirmed.
His contract with the state’s public defender’s office was set to expire soon after the 2013 audit was completed and because of the billing discrepancies, it was not renewed. He said he completed the representation of his final indigent clients without charging anyone for his services.
“No matter what the circumstances are, the fact of the matter is the buck has to stop somewhere,” Mathahs said. “I signed claims that were not accurate, and for that I’m responsible.”
Jennifer Meyer, a Marshalltown attorney, had represented indigent people under state contracts for more than a decade before the audits, which accused her of improper billing.
Meyer said the state's billing system was complex and that once concerns were raised she worked without pay for months as she tried to resolve the situation. She pleaded guilty in June to theft and was sentenced to two years of probation.
The state continues to seek restitution of more than $100,000.
"After dealing with these accusations for over five years, I resolved my situation and continue to maintain that I did not intentionally submit any claims for work that was not done," Meyer said. "I have moved on from a broken system and continue to uphold the ethics and responsibilities that are expected in the practice of law."
The state's billing system is antiquated and can contribute to billing errors, said attorney Alfredo Parrish of Des Moines. Incorrect bills can take hours to fix for the attorneys in his office who provide court-appointed services, he said.
There is sometimes confusion about what services an attorney may bill the state. Iowa rules generally don't allow for the court-appointed attorneys to be compensated for paralegal costs or time spent traveling, Parrish noted.
Parrish helped represent Joanie Grife, a Marshalltown attorney who was not criminally charged following the audit and has maintained her law license. She repaid $2,714 of an initial $20,120 of improper billings cited in the audits.
"Some might be negligent in how they handle billing, but in watching some of these young lawyers from my office do these cases, I think it's quite a chore to keep those billing records in the kind of order you do for private clients," Parrish said.
Iowa canceled or did not renew the contracts it had with nine of the 14 attorneys listed by name in the audits. The Iowa Public Defender’s office additionally has redesigned its reporting system so that suspicious or overlapping claims are identified and flagged for review before payment.
Iowa has roughly 800 active contracts with private attorneys to represent indigent people. The state pays more than $30 million a year for their representation to thousands of Iowans across the state.
“The vast majority of our contract attorneys are hardworking and dedicated to providing quality legal representation to our indigent clients,” Swaim said. “The fact that there have been a few abuses shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the majority are honest and full of integrity.”
Four private attorneys paid by Iowa to represent poor defendants have been convicted of criminal charges for overbilling the state.
- Ney McDaniel: A Spencer attorney the audits found had been improperly paid at least $177,755. McDaniel, now 66, pleaded guilty to a felony theft charge and in February 2016 was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His prison sentence was reconsidered and suspended six months later when he was sentenced to three years of probation. He was disbarred in 2016. He was ordered to repay the full amount identified in the audits. An effort to reach McDaniel for this article was unsuccessful.
- Jennifer Lynn Meyer: A Marshalltown attorney that audits found had improperly billed more than $100,000, mostly in excessive hours. Meyer, now 42, pleaded guilty to aggravated misdemeanor theft in February. She was sentenced in June to two years of probation and fined $625. Her record will be expunged if she successfully completes probation. The state continues seeking $101,220 in restitution. Meyer’s law license remains active and in good standing and she continues to work as an attorney. Meyer maintains she did not intentionally submit claims for work that was not done.
- Richard Jay Buffington: A Winfield attorney the audits found had improperly billed more than $44,000 in mileage or excessive hours. Buffington, now 49, pleaded guilty to a felony fraud charge. He received a suspended 10-year prison sentence in October and was given two years probation, ordered to pay $44,329 in restitution and fined $1,000. He was disbarred in February 2017. He declined to comment.
Here are the outcomes of the other 10 attorneys paid by Iowa to represent poor people who 2013 and 2014 state audits cited as having improperly billed for their services.
- Jason Hauser: A Des Moines attorney cited in audits with $48,088 of improper billings. The state terminated his contract in January 2013. His law license is inactive. State records do not indicate any repayments.
- David Pargulski: A Des Moines attorney cited in audits with making $17,210 in improper billings. The state terminated his contract in January 2013. His law license is active. State records do not indicate any repayments.
- Dennis Mathahs: A Marengo attorney cited in audits with $38,559 of improper billings. The state did not renew his contract in May 2013. His law license is active. He repaid $9,633.
- Joanie Grife: A Marshalltown attorney cited in audits with $20,120 of improper billings. The state terminated her contract in January 2014. Her law license is active. She repaid $2,714.
- Steven Edward Clark: A Des Moines attorney cited in audits with $3,384 of improper billings. The state terminated his contract in December 2013. His law license is active and he is now working as an administrative law judge for the Iowa Board of Parole. He repaid $284.
- Nathaniel Tagtow: A Norwalk attorney cited in audits with $4,828 of improper billings. The state continued his contract. His law license is active. He repaid $4,558.
- Laura Lockwood: A Des Moines attorney cited in audits with $1,887 of improper billings. The state continued her contract. Her law license is active. She repaid $980.
- Jane White: A Des Moines attorney cited in audits with $345 of improper billings. The state continued her contract. Her law license is active. She repaid the full amount.
- Katharine Strickler: An attorney who now lives in Chicago, cited in audits with $235 of improper billings. Her law license is active. The state continued her contract. She repaid $208.
- Magdalena Reese: A West Des Moines attorney cited in audits with $144 of improper billings. The state continued her contract. Her law license is active. She repaid the full amount.
Source: Des Moines Register