The Hancock County Courthouse in Ellsworth. Credit: Bill Trotter

The Maine Legislature’s watchdog committee on Friday voted unanimously to task its investigative arm with reviewing a reported lack of financial oversight within the state’s indigent legal services system.

The Government Oversight Committee asked the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability at its Friday morning meeting to investigate the Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which provides legal representation to indigent people accused of crimes.

The directive comes roughly a week after a critical Sixth Amendment Center report found a general lack of oversight within the system, including excessive billing and inadequate performance on the part of its attorneys, conflicts of interest and little to no audit processes.

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The group said it had “serious concerns” about the commission, which was formed in 2009 and serves as an alternative to a public defender’s office. The system’s staff of three oversees nearly 600 attorneys each year, whose caseloads exceeded 30,000 in the 2018 fiscal year.

During that time, 25 attorneys billed roughly $125,000 — an amount equaling the $60 statutory cap multiplied by a 40-hour work week and 52 weeks in a year. A sheriff in the study estimated that 25 percent of assigned attorneys do not visit their clients in jail to prepare cases, including one lawyer, who billed $172,000 in a year and never recorded a jail visit.

Danielle Fox, executive director for OPEGA, said her office would investigate the “root causes of that overbilling,” including finding out why so many of the billings and invoices exceeded a 40-hour work week.

OPEGA’s preliminary research would focus only on the lack of financial oversight within the system and dig deeper than the Sixth Amendment report, committee members agreed. To start, the group will present a broad review to committee members, who will then steer OPEGA where to probe further.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, who first brought the issue to the committee’s attention, praised the Sixth Amendment report, but said, “there’s still a lot of unanswered questions.”

Directing a complementary OPEGA report will help ensure “that when [the system] gets restructured, it gets restructured well,” she said.