Investigation finds no wrongdoing in lawyer's billings

An investigation into the bills submitted to Gwinnett County by a former court-appointed defense attorney has found no evidence of wrongdoing.

A Gwinnett County audit discovered irregularities in the bills submitted by Rodney Harris, who is now a Recorder's Court Judge. Some of the bills were illegible and others billed the county for more than 24 hours in a single day. Still other bills showed Harris appearing in court on a Saturday or Sunday, when no court was in sesssion.

Superior Court Judge Michael C. Clark requested that the District Attorney Danny Porter investigate Harris' bills last year, when he learned that Harris had charged the county $1.1 million between 2005 and 2010.

In cases where Harris billed for more hours than are in a single day, Porter said his investigators learned the Gwinnett County Indigent Defense Governing Committee allowed lawyers to bill at a flat rate rather than for the actual time worked in some circumstances.

Attorneys were permitted to bill one-third of an hour for closing out a file, or to bill one-and-a-half hours for reviewing and preparing discovery motions, Porter's letter to Clark said.

On one billing date, March 5, 2007, Harris submitted an invoice for 30.95 hours worked. Yet investigators were able to explain the bill because 19.5 of those hours were for filing 13 discovery motions (at 1.5 hours per motion). About seven hours were spent in court. The remaining four hours were billed for either opening or closing files or spent in meetings with prosecutors.

Attorney David Lipcomb, chairman of the Indigent Defense Governing Committee, said that the committee also reviewed Harris' bills and found reasons for the inaccuracies regarding Saturday and Sunday bills.

"What we think happened is he did the work on different days but sat down and did all the bills in one day," Lipscomb said.

Harris did not return calls Wednesday.

His attorney, Walt Britt said Harris answered all the questions put to him by county officials, the Judicial Qualifications Commission and State Bar of Georgia.

"Judge Harris was guilty of poor penmanship or scrivener's errors, and in other billing items followed the common practice and custom of the Gwinnett Judicial Circuit Indigent Defense Program," Britt said.

The Indigent Defense Governing Committee last year adopted an electronic billing system that will flag any lawyer's attempts to bill for more than 10 hours per day. It then requires the submitting attorney to provide an explanation before such bills can be approved. The system also allows lawyers' bills to be audited more easily.