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An attorney who bilked New York City’s Assigned Counsel Plan (ACP) out of thousands of dollars has been suspended for three years by the Appellate Division, First Department. A hearing panel of the department’s Disciplinary Committee had recommended only a six-month suspension, citing the quality of the attorney’s work and her bouts with depression and alcohol abuse. The lawyer, Sara Goldman, was known as one of the most reliable and adept attorneys to handle alleged parole violations for inmates at Rikers Island, which she had done since 1989, co-workers and an administrative law judge said in letters. But a unanimous panel of the First Department, writing in Matter of Goldman, M-1937, said such a brief suspension was “far too lenient given the duration and scope of [the attorney's] misconduct.” Goldman was paid $118,000 by the ACP in 1999 and another $112,115 in 2000. She billed more than 7,600 hours for work supposedly performed on all but eight days of those two years. That would be an average of 10.5 hours a day. In fact, she admitted she worked 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, court papers said. This was not Goldman’s first padding of her bills. In 1994, she repaid more than $16,000 to the city after an audit of 18-B attorneys who represent indigent defendants in Manhattan and the Bronx. Goldman, who had been living in New Jersey, could not be reached for comment. She was not represented by an attorney in this matter. Goldman has not repaid any of the money beyond the $16,000 in 1994. Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt, whose office signs off on the bills of 18-B attorneys, said Goldman’s fraudulent filings were not caught sooner because city employees had manually approved and monitored bills before the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “It was obviously vulnerable to fraud, and we took immediate steps to bring the system into the 21st century,” Feinblatt said. “Today, something like this couldn’t happen without red flags going up like it was the Fourth of July.” Feinblatt said the new computerized payment system tracks hours billed and the number and types of cases, among other elements, and generates reports. It is fully in place for Criminal Court and Supreme Court, he said, but has yet to be applied to Family Court. Until this year, 18-B panel attorneys made only $40 an hour for in-court work and $25 an hour for out-of-court work — rates that stood for 18 years until they were raised in January to $75 for felonies and $60 for misdemeanors. Goldman told a disciplinary hearing officer that virtually all of the 18-B attorneys overbilled to compensate for the low rates. In April 2001, The New York Times published an article on the state of the ACP and the often lax monitoring of its attorneys. Goldman was featured in the article, as was her $118,000 in compensation for work at Rikers Island. A few months later, she was investigated by a subcommittee of the ACP after complaints were lodged against her by several clients. She kept haphazard records, if any, and later admitted that she worked regular weekday hours and never on weekends, according to records at the First Department Disciplinary Committee. She resigned from the panel but continued to volunteer at Rikers, saying she did not want to abandon her clients. Goldman’s conduct and her resignation from the 18-B panel have had a profound effect on her life, according to the records. She had been suffering from depression while she overbilled and has since been divorced. She is also estranged from her twin daughters. “I know I’ve made … terrible mistakes,” she said at her disciplinary hearing. “I think I got carried away, but I never tried to hurt my clients. I always tried to do the best by them. I don’t have anything else.” Considering Goldman’s circumstances, the Disciplinary Committee asked for only a nine-month suspension. In other cases, attorneys have been disbarred for submitting false 18-B vouchers ( Matter of Sealy, 209 AD2d 132 [1995]). In Matter of Stone, 230 AD2d 481 (1997), an attorney was suspended for a year for overbilling and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Nothing in Goldman’s file suggests that her case has been referred to prosecutors. John R. Vaughan, the referee who handled Goldman’s case, recommended that she be suspended for six months. He disagreed with the committee’s allegation that Goldman falsified records in an attempt to defend herself, concluding that she simply kept poor files. LAW JUDGE’S COMPLEMENT In support of his position, Vaughan cited a letter from Terry J. Saunders, a supervising law judge in the State Division of Parole. Saunders described Goldman as a hard worker, perhaps driven to do more and more work to avoid personal problems. “In our desperation to move the calendars and provide legal representation we assigned numerous cases to Sara because often she was the only attorney present and she never said ‘no,’” Saunders wrote. Rather than asking the First Department to confirm the referee’s sanction, the Disciplinary Committee suggested that the court should sanction Goldman as it saw fit. In its ruling, the First Department said that no matter Goldman’s circumstances, six months was too lenient. Noting her 1994 overbilling, the court wrote, “Despite this clear warning sign, respondent failed to rectify her improper billing practices and continued to fraudulently bill the ACP for work she had not performed, thereby costing the ACP, and ultimately the taxpayers, thousands of dollars.” The court continued: “Nor can we ignore respondent’s astounding exaggeration of work hours and her total failure to maintain any client records or time sheets that would permit an accurate accounting of work actually performed.” The court said that Goldman could be reinstated after three years if she showed proof of sobriety and had participated in an approved attorney-monitoring program. “It was a very hard case for many reasons,” said Naomi F. Goldstein, who prosecuted the case for the Disciplinary Committee. Goldman cooperated with the proceeding but offered no formal legal response and was not represented by counsel. Presiding Justice John T. Buckley and Justices Eugene Nardelli, Richard T. Andrias, Milton L. Williams and Luis A. Gonzalez concurred on the ruling.

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