Criminal Justice

Texas attorney earned more than $460K representing indigent defendants last year

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A lawyer who earned more than $460,000 representing indigent defendants in Collin County, Texas, last year is no longer receiving felony appointments.

Collin County has conducted an initial audit of payments to the lawyer, Marc Fratter, and it is reviewing standards and approval procedures for payment requests, the Dallas Morning News reports. The county also has started distributing reports to help judges track payments by case.

Fratter earned more than double the amount paid to the next highest-paid indigent defense law firm in the county, which has three lawyers working on cases.

Fratter said his earnings are high because he has several appointments requiring him to work seven days per week, 12 to 16 hours per day. He told the Dallas Morning News he hasn’t done anything illegal or improper.

Fratter also noted a change in the payment method in Collin County. Judges set the rules, as authorized by the Texas Fair Defense Act.

Judges changed the payment structure in felony appeals from a flat fee of $3,500 to hourly rates of $50 to $100. Fratter earned $391,380 in hourly fees, which adds up to at least 3,910 hours of work. He also earned $69,000 from flat fees and detention hearings.

Most of Fratter’s pay sheets were signed by Judges Ray Wheless and Cyndi Wheless, who are husband and wife judges at the McKinney courthouse.

Cyndi Wheless oversees all the juvenile cases in Collin County, and her court generally has higher court appointment expenses. She told the Dallas Morning News that recent concerns have led her to begin making spreadsheets to track lawyers on cases.

Ray Wheless has signed pay sheets for Fratter, including some pay sheets for cases that Fratter handled for other judges. The rules don’t bar the practice. Fratter said he submitted pay sheets to Ray Wheless because they got quicker approval, and other lawyers did the same thing.

But the county has put a stop to that practice, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Ray Wheless told the Dallas Morning News that he signs hundreds of pay requests each year, and it is impossible to verify whether any lawyer actually performed most of the billed work. “To a great extent, all indigent defense programs in Texas operate on the honor system,” he said.

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