Wednesday, June 15, 2005

County says Johnson attorney overcharged

Pangburn had resigned from Oregon State Bar

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County contends that Bob Pangburn, the attorney for convicted Bellevue murderer Sarah Johnson, "blatantly overcharged" it by more than $60,000 for legal services.

In an objection filed June 10 in 5th District Court in Hailey, county Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas wrote that Pangburn charged $130 per hour instead of the $65 per hour specified in a public defender contract.

Following a six-week trial that ended March 12, Johnson was convicted of shooting and killing her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the family's Bellevue home on Sept. 2, 2003. The trial was moved to Boise to avoid a jury pool tainted by local media coverage.

Johnson will be sentenced during proceedings set for June 29 and 30 at the 5th District Courthouse in Hailey. Attorneys in the case continue to wrap up a number of motions filed by both sides following the trial.

The alleged overcharging only recently came to light when the invoices were unsealed.

"This is the first opportunity plaintiff has had to review defense counsel's charges," Thomas wrote. "Currently, both defense counsel Bob Pangburn and Mark Rader have overcharged and erroneously received $60,710 in excess hourly payments alone, from the county alone."

Thomas contended that it is also evident from billing records that defense attorneys received payments for mileage in excess of the amount authorized by the court.

"Finally," Thomas wrote, "the county objects to payments paid to any associate attorney of Pangburn's, specifically Anita Moore, for brief writing or other legal research performed on behalf of the Sarah Johnson case. Pangburn has admitted that he has billed out Ms. Moore at his contract rates, which ranged from $65 to $130 per hour..."

During a short hearing Tuesday afternoon, 5th District Judge Barry Wood scheduled another hearing to consider the billing discrepancies for Thursday, June 23, at 10 a.m. Both Thomas and Pangburn told the judge that the public defender contract is not ambiguous.

So far, the sentencing is on track as scheduled, and defense motions seeking to acquit Johnson or hold a new trail have been denied. However, the defense team has been dissolved in response to county concerns that the post-trial billing was too much. In a hearing on May 2, Pangburn did not "show cause" as to why he cannot proceed representing Johnson alone. From then on, any work by other members of the defense team, including Rader and Investigator Pat Dunn, will be without compensation from Blaine County.

"The court of its own accord has become concerned with the increasing costs incurred at public expense regarding post-verdict proceedings in this case," Wood wrote in an April 18 order.

Five days prior to issuing the order, Wood received a letter from Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael, who expressed similar concerns.

"In recent weeks, the board has grown increasingly concerned over the amount of money being billed by Bob Pangburn and the court's willingness to grant these post-trial requests," Michael wrote. "Without any budget or restraint, the Johnson defense 'team' has billed Blaine County hundreds of thousands of dollars for travel time, unnecessary hearing attendance, numerous jail visits and other 'services' that are outside the scope of the allowable expenses.

"While the board understands that Ms. Johnson required extensive representation during her trial, it is unfathomable why county taxpayers should pay three attorneys and a slew of investigators and 'hangers on' to attend and prepare for post-trial proceedings ... The board is respectfully requesting that the court hold Mr. Pangburn to a measure of fiscal responsibility that is commensurate to his duties as a public defender."

According to Blaine County Clerk Marsha Reimann, overall court proceedings in the Johnson case have cost $990,035 and still may top $1 million. During the period including January, February and March, the defense spent $246,104, and the prosecution spent $42,000. Reimann said those are the most recent numbers available.

During that time, Pangburn billed $99,148 for his own hours, $65,257 for Rader's hours and $16,951 for Dunn's hours.

This is not the first time Pangburn's conduct has been questioned.

Pangburn resigned from the Oregon State Bar in September 2004 while disciplinary matters were pending against him. According to state bar records, Pangburn was accused of "multiple violations of the disciplinary rules involving multiple client matters." Those included "dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation, including conversion of client funds," "illegal or excessive fees," and "failing to deposit and maintain client funds in trust."

Kateri Walsh, the Oregon bar's community relations administrator, called the Form B resignation "the functional equivalent of being disbarred."

According to the bar's records, Pangburn had 42 complaints in his file. Twenty-nine of those had been dismissed, one had resulted in an admonishment (the lowest form of discipline), one in a public reprimand, and the other 11 were consolidated in the case that resulted in his resignation.

In June 2001, Pangburn received a public reprimand from the Idaho State Bar for several violations of the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct.

Pangburn could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

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