Attorneys

Lawyer withdraws from almost 200 instances after not complying with state investigation

A prominent defense lawyer in southern Maine has asked to withdraw from nearly 200 cases as she resists a state investigation into complaints and billing discrepancies at her firm.

Amy Fairfield, the founder and managing attorney of Fairfield & Associates, has also been suspended and is no longer eligible to provide legal services to Maine’s poor as of July 1 for having “not complied with a commission investigation,” according to a suspension letter by Justin Andrus, the interim executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, the state’s public defense agency.

One of the law firm’s senior associates, Patrick Gordon, was also suspended. The decisions can be appealed.

Fairfield told The Maine Monitor via email that she requested to leave nearly 200 cases that she was assigned by the courts. A copy of her motion to withdraw shows Fairfield submitted at least one request to leave a case on June 24 in Cumberland County Court in Portland. Her firm has offices in Portland, Lyman, Brunswick and Kennebunk, and was the state’s largest private provider of court-appointed counsel in fiscal year 2018.

Fairfield’s lengthy and scathing court motion accused Andrus of harassing her and launching a “targeted campaign” against her firm.

In requests to leave her cases, Fairfield wrote that she received a letter in February, “via certified mail, the contents of which counsel (Fairfield) found to be rather astounding for any number of reasons, not the least of which being the sheer breadth of the records demanded by the Irreverent Executive Director, even notwithstanding a keen awareness of the highly privileged nature of the records sought.”

Maine is the only state that relies entirely on private attorneys to provide legal services to defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. The fallout from the decision to suspend Fairfield is the latest example of how complex it is for the state’s public defense agency, known as MCILS, to oversee the private attorneys it hires. Lawmakers are demanding enhanced auditing of payments to attorneys, but that requires law firms to be willing to participate.

Fairfield said her firm has been subjected to several confidential investigations for its billing since 2018 by the state’s licensing agency, MCILS and other government agencies. In February, Andrus opened another investigation and began seeking five years of cases and billing records for each attorney at the law firm covering their court-appointed and private work, according to a copy of the court motion Fairfield provided to The Maine Monitor.

Andrus would not comment on the length of his investigation into the Fairfield & Associates

lawyers nor provide any further detail about the “complaints” and “billing discrepancies” cited in his decision to suspend the attorneys.

“I am not suspending anyone here for performance-related activity,” Andrus said.

In the past six months, Andrus has opened at least 21 investigations of attorneys contracted with MCILS. He said he closed some investigations without suspending or permanently removing the attorney. In May, he removed an attorney for failing to report new criminal charges filed against herself to the commission while continuing to represent clients.

Fairfield is a seasoned trial lawyer. In 2017, she reached a deal with prosecutors and secured the release of Anthony Sanborn Jr., who was sentenced in 1993 to 70 years in Maine State Prison for the murder of his girlfriend, Jessica Briggs, when they were both 16. The Sanborn case is the most expensive post-conviction review in MCILS  history, costing $130,432.

Lawmakers have repeatedly questioned the state’s ability to accurately oversee and audit payments to private attorneys by MCILS.

A public defense consultant said multiple private attorneys could be overcharging the state by billing hours that greatly exceeded full-time work, according to a report published in April 2019. Fairfield was among the highest-paid attorneys in the data, as were four other lawyers at her firm, according to an investigation by The Maine Monitor. Gordon was not one of the lawyers in the investigation.

Fairfield denies the claims about her hours and earnings. She wrote that the MCILS billing system is inadequate because it produces reports of all the hours billed on the cases that an attorney is appointed without regard to which attorney did the work.

During a public hearing held by the commission in November 2019, Fairfield welcomed a review of her firm’s records and finances.

“I will open my books. I will open my doors. I will do whatever anybody feels they need to see or do with regards to how our office runs,” Fairfield said at the time.

A year later, the state’s independent watchdog — the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability — concluded MCILS did not have adequate financial rules or controls during the first decade it was open, and while the magnitude of overbilling by attorneys was likely overstated, the underlying problem of attorneys claiming to have worked a large number of hours was valid, according to its report.

Gov. Janet Mills was hesitant to invest money and resources this year, due to concerns with financial oversight at MCILS. Lawmakers passed a budget with $18.5 million of new funding for MCILS to expand auditing and attorney oversight while also raising court-appointed attorney wages from $60 to $80 an hour. Mills signed the budget but not the bills endorsing the expansion of MCILS.

Andrus said the agency is grateful for the additional staff it will be able to hire. The employees will help the agency continue to work toward establishing auditing protocols to safeguard taxpayer money, he said.

Under the terms of her suspension, Fairfield is prohibited from, “personally, nor through any employee or contractor, bill MCILS for services she provides to any client assigned to any other lawyer,” according to the suspension letter. Despite withdrawing from many cases, Fairfield and Gordon are allowed to complete any case work that was assigned by the courts and approved by MCILS prior to June 30.

Fairfield and Gordon’s suspension will remain in effect until after they comply with the investigation. The suspensions do not currently affect other lawyers at Fairfield & Associates.

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