A Madison lawyer who systematically overbilled the State Public Defender's Office for work on behalf of indigent clients will spend at least three months in jail for defrauding the office.
David G. Stokes, 61, took advantage of a system that is chronically underfunded and understaffed when he submitted 628 fraudulent billing entries for work he didn't do between 2001 and 2006, Dane County Circuit Judge Nicholas McNamara said.
"Ultimately, you robbed the taxpayers," McNamara said.
McNamara sentenced Stokes to two years of probation and ordered a six-month jail sentence as part of his probation. Half of the jail sentence must be served without work release privileges.
One of Stokes' public defender clients, Brian Locke, persisted in asking that Stokes be investigated for work that Stokes claimed to have done before he was even appointed to Locke's case. That led to an investigation and ultimately criminal charges against Stokes last year.
McNamara told Stokes that he took advantage of the fact that the Public Defender's Office didn't have the capacity to examine every bill submitted by private lawyers working on public defender cases.
"You were able to get away with that repeatedly because the system depends on the trust and honesty of lawyers to make it work, and you violated all that," McNamara said.
The overbilling represented $27,000 worth of work, according to a criminal complaint, but Stokes was only paid $19,630, which he has paid back to the public defender.
Public Defender spokesman Randy Kraft said the office has shifted to an online billing system and away from paper submissions that give it greater ability to track bills and detect duplicate billing and excessive claims for travel time.
"It should be noted that Mr. Stokes' conduct is not reflective of the more than 1,000 attorneys" who do public defender work," Kraft said. "He is the exception."
Stokes' lawyer, Eric Schulenburg, argued against jail for Stokes, saying it would serve no purpose.
Stokes told McNamara that he "deeply regrets" the thefts and said it will never happen again.
But McNamara said he didn't want other lawyers to think they could steal from clients or from the system as Stokes did and get away with it simply by re-paying what they took.
McNamara also ordered Stokes to pay a $5,000 fine, and while he is on probation Stokes is banned from public defender or public contract work and from having charge of client trust accounts.
Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney David Feiss, who acted as special prosecutor in the case, said Stokes remains under investigation by the state Office of Lawyer Regulation.