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Politics

Group Studying Ways To Overhaul Indigent Legal Services Amid Reports Of Rampant Fraud

Maine’s indigent legal services system has long had financial issues, and part of the problem is fraud. So say some members of a study group charged with recommending ways to improve or replace the way poor Mainers are assigned criminal defense attorneys.

Maine, like other states, has a constitutional responsibility to provide a lawyer for someone charged with a serious offense. Until seven years ago, a judge oversaw the entire system, from assigning attorneys to approving the payments.

The Legislature decided in 2010 to hand over control to the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, but in response to chronic cost overruns, the Legislature created a study group to report on ways to improve or replace the current structure.

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson is a member of that study group, and points to fraud as one of the major drivers of cost.

“I am not trying to diminish or criticize the legitimate need of anybody for a court-appointed counsel, but what I see is really a wholesale taking advantage of the system,” she says.

Anderson says she has seen many instances in Cumberland County of defendants filling out affidavits of income and assets, entering nothing but zeros on the form.

Steven Carey, the chair of the commission, says the commission currently does not have a screener in Cumberland County to review those forms. He says the commission does not make the final determination of whether a person should get free representation — that, he says, is left to the courts.

“Our screeners are supposed to recommend whether someone qualifies, doesn’t qualify or should qualify partially for court appointment. And that it is the courts’ determination under rule 44 whether the person actually qualifies,” he says.

But the sheer number of people who are getting qualified for indigent legal services troubles study group member David Flanagan.

“It sounds like there is absolutely no disincentive to lie on this form so as to take advantage of the system and the taxpayers,” he says.

Flanagan says the group should take a broad and reasoned look at the current system to see whether there are ways to improve it, but should also consider alternatives, such as a public defender system that is used in many states.

The group asked commission staff to collect information on how other states provide legal services, and to review best practices that might be modified for use in Maine.

State Sen. Shenna Bellows, a Democrat from Manchester, cautioned the panel not to lose sight of the state’s duty — to provide legal representation to those that can’t afford it.

“I am very concerned about whether the state is fulfilling its constitutional obligations to provide counsel under the Sixth Amendment. I’m concerned about the Lawyer of the Day program. I am concerned about delayed payments to defense counsel,” she says.

The study group is expected to make its recommendations to the Legislature in December.