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A lawyer makes almost half a million dollars representing indigent clients. What is wrong with this picture?
Nothing, really, because a contingency fee lawyer can make millions on single case for one indigent client. But that's not what we're talking about.
Marc Fratter, a criminal defense attorney, made more than $460,000 last year as appointed counsel for indigent clients. That has become a problem in Collin County, Texas.
To the general public, Fratter's paycheck might look like way too much for defending people who have no money. Following an "eye-popping" audit and scrutiny by the press, the county has started distributing reports to judges to help them track payments by case.
Over the last fiscal year, however, Fratter made more than anyone else on the county payroll. That looked like too much even to other lawyers; he got twice as much as the next highest-paid indigent defense firm in the county.
Working 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, Fratter billed as many as 100 hours a week. The judges approved every pay sheet, he said.
"I'm not hiding anything," he told the Dallas Morning News.
Fratter said the county changed the payment method under the Texas Fair Defense Act, and that favored him last year. Felony appeals went from a flat fee of $3,500 to hourly rates of $50 to $100. But after the audit, he is no longer getting felony cases.
Last year, Judges Ray Wheless and Cyndi Wheless -- husband and wife -- authorized most of Fratter's payments. Ray Wheless said he signs hundreds of pay requests each year, and it is impossible to verify the lawyers' work.
"To a great extent, all indigent defense programs in Texas operate on the honor system," he said.