Lawyer: Taxpayer money wasted on undeserving defendants

Clerk unaware of any authority to investigate defendants' financial state

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Taxpayer money is being wasted on paying for lawyers to represent defendants who could afford to hire their own attorney, according to local attorneys.

[WEB EXTRA: Raw video of judge ]

"There's a lot of abuse, a lot of fraud, I think, that goes on in these things," said Kissimmee attorney Ernie Mullins. "Because people don't really disclose all their financial resources when they submit the affidavit."

The affidavit Mullins referred to is the application for criminal indigent status, which defendants seeking a public defender must complete. It requires defendants to list income and assets to determine if they qualify, but a Local 6 investigation found there can be apparent discrepancies between the affidavit and other material in the same court file.

For example, Robert Redgate was arrested after Orange County deputies accused him of beating a woman with a plunger. Redgate indicated he had no liabilities or assets, including vehicles, in his public defender application. However, deputies wrote in Redgate's arrest report they found him in a silver Nissan Pathfinder they said he owned, and that he had a job.

Based on the information provided in the application, the Orange County Clerk of Court in July appointed a public defender to represent Redgate after determining he was indigent.

But about a month after Redgate received a public defender -- meant for people who can't afford to hire their own private attorney -- Redgate chose to hire a private attorney to represent him instead, according to court records.

Redgate could not be reached for comment. Nothing in his court file explained the discrepancies and there was no sign of an investigation into them.

Orange County Clerk of Court spokesman Paul Donnelly told Local 6 he was not aware of any authority that the clerk's office has to further investigate an application for a public defender. In other words, it appears the clerk's office has to limit its decision to the information the defendant provides on the form.

"A judge has the discretion to overrule any recommendation," Donnelly said, however.

The problem, according to several local attorneys, is that many Central Florida judges tend to take the applications at face value, and don't really aggressively question defendants to learn details beyond what's provided in the application.

But there is one judge who has gained an unusual reputation among both the state and defense for scrutinizing applications for a public defender -- and then yanking the taxpayer-funded attorney away from defendants she believes don't deserve one.

Osceola County Court Judge Carol Draper was reviewing an application last month from a defendant in her courtroom that likely would have resulted in a public defender representing him, until she started asking questions.

"You don't work at all?" Draper asked. 

"No," the defendant replied.

"What do you do all day?" Draper asked.

That prompted the defendant to admit he does work mowing lawns -- "off the books." Draper was not happy.

"OK, let me get this straight," Draper said. "You work off the books, so you don't pay any taxes. But you want all these people who pay taxes to pay for your lawyer? That's not going to happen."

Mullins believes more judges should follow Draper's lead.

"It's public money," Mullins said. "It's not only important to have a judge that's doing that, it's important to have all our elected officials doing that."

Mullins estimated that probably "more than half of the cases they have in that (public defender's) office don't really require that kind of service. They should be hiring lawyers."

And many do hire a private attorney -- after first receiving a public defender

"We pick up a lot of business from that office," Mullins said. "Because people come in here and say, 'Gee, what can you do for me?' And I quote a fee. And then sure enough, they come in with the money."

Others stick with their appointed counsel, like former Orange County deputy William Martinez, who was acquitted of molesting a disabled woman last year. Martinez was represented by private defense attorney, Lyle Mazin, who's under a government contract to take appointed cases when there's a conflict with the public defender's office.

But a review of Martinez's court file raises questions about whether the clerk had a complete picture of his financial state before appointing him an attorney paid for by the taxpayers.

A 2011 document filed by the clerk stated "no vehicle record" and "no property found" when reviewing Martinez for public defender eligibility. But Local 6 found Martinez walking outside his Deltona home that property appraisers records show he owned since 2001. A motion his appointed attorney later placed in his court file also confirmed he owned a home and a vehicle.

Martinez declined to do an interview with Local 6 about whether he could have afforded to hire his own private attorney, and referred questions to Mazin, who defended his former client.

"We filed a motion with court that specifically listed all of his assets," Mazin said. "If at any point in time they wanted to remove appointed counsel, it was completely within court's discretion."

Mazin also said that it's important to remember that "absolutely there are people in this community that need appointed counsel. They need someone to stand for them when they can't stand for themselves."

Mazen added that he essentially takes appointed cases as a public service to the community, as the amount of money he receives from the government contract is "minute."

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