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Conor Corcoran’s paycheck was late for the work he’d done representing a criminal defendant at the request of a Philadelphia judge. When he called to ask why, court employees told him to call the city. The hangup? Corcoran — fresh off his first trial as court-appointed counsel — had failed to apply for a business privilege tax license. No license, no pay. “I said, ‘I didn’t know I had to get one,’” the 28-year-old explained last week. Corcoran earned $350 for the misdemeanor trial. The tax license cost $250, and the business privilege tax last year was on 6.5 percent of a sole proprietor’s taxable income and 2.1 mills on his gross receipts. “So they immediately took away all the money I earned on one measly misdemeanor case that I worked my ass off for,” Corcoran said. This was months ago, but court officials say a lot of lawyers like Corcoran call each week wondering the same thing as he did: Where’s my money? The city is holding — indefinitely — roughly $1 million worth of payments owed to 190 court-appointed lawyers who owe business privilege taxes, don’t have a tax license or didn’t file a return, according to the Office of the City Controller. The court-appointed lawyers’ fees account for about 39 percent of the city’s unpaid invoices, and 17 percent of the total funds currently placed on “tax hold” by the city, said Edward Sullivan, audit administrator in the controller’s office. Sullivan’s office executes a tax hold when any vendor providing services to the city fails to stay current with registering, filing or paying business privilege taxes. In many cases, the city is withholding more money than what a court-appointed lawyer owes, Sullivan said. “In some cases, I may be holding $30,000 for an attorney, and they owe the city $10,000,” he said. The court processes roughly $100,000 in fees for court-appointed counsel a week and submits the invoices to the city, which issues their checks when they’re approved by the Revenue Department, Sullivan said. Judges appoint the lawyers to represent indigent defendants in adult criminal, dependency or juvenile delinquency cases that the Defender Association of Philadelphia — a nonprofit legal services agency — can’t handle due to a conflict of interest or another reason. Sullivan could not provide an estimate of how much the attorneys owe in back taxes. He said the city won’t know the figure until lawyers file returns. At the courts, Kevin A. Cross is trying to educate court-appointed counsel about what they need to do to get paid. Cross, the court’s deputy administrator for financial services, posted a notice on the court’s Web site explaining tax holds and listing the city Department of Revenue’s phone number. He also plans to send a similar notice by mail to court-appointed counsel who have submitted invoices within the last six months, he said. “I wanted to get the information out to them — that it’s not something we can do anything about, but they should call and check up on it,” Cross said, noting there’s always a chance the city’s records are wrong. The court pays between 450 and 500 court-appointed counsel a year, he said. The 190 on tax hold might include some attorneys who are no longer practicing or dead, Cross said. Sullivan, an accountant, finds it hard to believe that lawyers aren’t familiar with the business privilege tax, he said. “I give them the benefit of the doubt that they would know enough about taxes that they know they owe them,” he said. Judith Frankel Rubino, who chairs the criminal justice section of the Philadelphia Bar Association, guessed that some lawyers don’t get around to filing their business tax returns. She said the city’s policy makes sense. “You don’t pay your taxes, you don’t get paid,” she said. Rubino, a former prosecutor, takes court appointments for the sentencing phases of capital cases, she said. The fees — which haven’t increased in several years — are low, she said. “But they can add up if an attorney takes on a lot of cases.” Her section of the bar recently met with court officials to discuss revising the fee schedule to encourage more lawyers to take court appointments. “You want lawyers to take the cases, but some don’t because they can’t afford to,” she said. Cross plans to estimate the cost of the bar’s proposal by the next time the bar group and court officials meet in September, he said. “Depending on the cost estimate, I can’t guarantee that we’ll have room in the current budget to incorporate them,” Cross said, referring to the proposed revisions. Pay rates for court-appointed counsel vary widely across Pennsylvania with county judges setting hourly rates ranging from $40 to $75 an hour, according to a 2003 study prepared for the American Bar Association. Philadelphia court-appointed counsel are paid on a per diem basis. For example, an attorney handling a felony, nonhomicide trial that lasts more than a day is paid $750 for the first day and $300 for each additional full trial day (three hours or more). Comparatively, the federal courts pay private, appointed lawyers up to $90 an hour for work done in and out of court on felony, noncapital cases. Attorneys may receive up to $5,200 for felony cases and may petition the court to reimburse their out-of-pocket expenses, according to the ABA study. Corcoran said he believes that Philadelphia’s low fees deprive some defendants of the best representation available. He stopped taking court appointments after nine months because it wasn’t worth the work he put in, he said. In theory, serving as court-appointed counsel would be good for young attorneys just starting their practices, offering them the chance to gain courtroom experience, he said. “For the types of attorneys who are taking court appointments, they are just starting out and trying to get any little scrap of work they can,” he said. But the bureaucracy involved in the process was a disincentive for him and others. Therefore, rather than sort through the mess, “a lot of people just let the tax holds sit,” he said.

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