In San Bernardino County, the median household income is $52,041, yet a family of four needs an income of $60,585 to meet the Self-Sufficiency Standard. Without sufficient income to meet basic needs, it’s not surprising that families in this county struggle every day. And, unfortunately, our children face the brunt of that struggle. 29% of our children live in poverty; 33,000 are homeless; one in four lack proper nutrition; only one in three third graders read at grade level; and access to childcare is limited, with 12,000 low income families on waiting lists. With a minority population of almost 68%, San Bernardino County must do more when one in four African-Americans lives in poverty.
With strong leadership and a vision to improve the lives of the residents these challenges could be overcome. For too long, however, San Bernardino County has suffered from a dearth of leaders; instead it has been overseen by mere politicians. It is for this reason that we continue to experience scandals big and small, past and present, and continue to stagnate. The very first step we must take, if we are to progress, is to root out the never-ending cycle of corruption. Then we can begin to see the day when most of our residents earn incomes that exceed the Self-Sufficiency Standard.
Rooting out corruption will be no easy task. For example, one blatant, ongoing corruption scandal in San Bernardino County threatens constitutional rights and has caused many of our poor to unfairly lose their freedom. Guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and enshrined by the 1963 US Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, poor criminal defendants have a right to free legal representation. In California, most counties fund public defender offices to protect constitutional rights and promote justice. Due to certain legal rules, the public defender cannot represent all persons accused of a crime. In those limited cases, the County Board of Supervisors contracts with private attorneys who provide the needed legal representation. It is in this indigent defense program where, in 2012, I uncovered and reported, a multi-million dollar corruption.
One politically influential private attorney had a $3,000,000 annual contract. This huge sum proved to be insufficient. Year after year, the contractor went to the Board for increases: $175,000 in 2010, $200,000 in 2011 and again in 2012. The contractor claimed that new appointments had increased because the Public Defender had declared more conflicts. Performing due diligence, I reviewed the contractor’s new case appointments and related billing. Immediately, I saw the inconsistencies between the billings and the contract.
The contract, a common-sense approach to indigent defense, incentivized the contract attorney to litigate on behalf of clients. For example, in felony cases, the contract allowed for a $1,175 appointment fee when the client was represented through a preliminary hearing. If the case settled prior to the preliminary hearing the contractor would earn a miscellaneous felony fee of $200. For misdemeanor cases, the contract allowed for $450 appointment fee if the case went to assignment calendar, $150 if the case settled earlier in the process. To be eligible for the higher fees, the contractor was required to prepare and complete more complicated legal proceedings.
Not surprisingly, the contractor was not actually required to perform as defined by the contract. The billing and related payments demonstrated that performance auditing was not done; the contractor submitted billing for the higher amounts without performing the necessary work. I, and a few others, researched hundreds of cases and found that most felonies settled prior to the preliminary hearing and very few misdemeanors reached assignment calendar. We calculated that, in 2011, the contractor had received 554 case appointments and a contract of $3,000,000. Even without all of the contract billings, we were able to determine that in one fiscal year, overbilling cost tax payers at least $645,845.
Additionally, the contractor exploited representation in treatment courts. Treatment courts provide an opportunity for indigent clients to receive treatment and support to manage their substance use disorder under intense supervision. For the attorney, treatment court requires attendance at a weekly conference hearing where the client’s progress is evaluated. These conferences require very little or no preparatory work from the attorney and, as such, the contract set the attorney’s appearance fee at $75. Again, the contractor overbilled (at the rate of $200) and performance auditing was not done. In a six-month period, the contractor billed $52,200 for appearing on 46 cases. For a three-year contract, we can average that the contractor billed over $310,000 for treatment court appearances that require little or no prep work.
In June of 2012, after making these findings and organizing the data, I informed the County Administrative Office of the billing discrepancies. After my report, I became the object of intense pressure from the Interim Assistant Public Defender who demanded I drop the inquiry because of his very close relationship with the contractor. The Assistant Public Defender was concerned because he knew that I was aware of the fact that the Public Defender Office loosened its conflict policy so as to ensure the contractor received more appointments. Two months later, the contractor received a nine-month contract extension.
My concern intensified so I emailed then Board of Supervisors Chairperson, Janice Rutherford. I explained to her that in the indigent defense program there was at least negligent overbilling, or at worst fraud and that the loss was potentially in the millions; I also expressed concern over the obvious appearance of impropriety. The contractor in question donated handsomely to the political campaigns of each Board member and the District Attorney.
In September 2012, the Board hired a consultant to look into the indigent defense process. I contacted the consultant in Sacramento and described my findings. I felt optimistic that the fraud and overbilling would stop. A year went by and in September 2013, the County released a new request for proposals for the indigent defense contract. But, much to my dismay, in March 2014 this same contractor secured the new contract, without the prior contract incentives to litigate on behalf of clients. The County awarded the contractor an annual $8,000,000 contract, rejecting a less costly proposal from a set of outstanding attorneys with many years of experience in criminal law.
Not coincidentally, District Attorney Mike Ramos, wrote a letter of recommendation for the contractor because he too was the beneficiary of over a $100,000 in political contributions from the contractor and his partners. Even knowing that the contractor overbilled for services, the Board voted to award the contractor millions more dollars. Leaving San Bernardino County with one contractor who happily makes millions of dollars, from which he kickbacks thousands to the District Attorney and the Board, to provide minimal legal representation to our neediest residents.
It is this entrenched corruption that prevents us from addressing our many challenges and which grossly fails tax payers, who deserve an ethical government. It is time for change!