A state commission Tuesday took action against a Miami-Dade County attorney featured in the NBC 6 Investigators’ look into questionable billings by private lawyers appointed to defend death penalty cases.
Private attorney Rae Shearn was ordered to pay back $282,806 - part of more than $2.2 million she has collected in public money since 2011 for representing clients who cannot afford her services, but who present conflicts that prevent public defenders and other state-salaried attorneys from representing them.
During a lull in work due to the pandemic, the Justice Administrative Commission began reviewing invoices submitted by attorneys who had billed the most in recent years and took action against those who it found did not provide adequate back-up for their reported hours.
Shearn drew attention, in part, for claiming to have worked more than 24 hours a day 44 times during the review period.
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She tried to substantiate her billing. But Cris Martinez, the JAC general counsel, Tuesday told the commission that staff “were not able to link the submitted records to her hourly billing entries and therefore have had a very difficult time substantiating any of the billing entries.”
Speaking to the commission via Zoom, Shearn said she did her best.
“I have provided records individually that show each and every time I have billed,” she said.
But Martinez questioned “all those days where we were billed for more than 24 hours in a day. There were 44 instances of that.”
“It happened by accident, mistake and it’s human error,” Shearn said.
One commissioner, Polk County State Attorney Brian Haas, was not impressed.
“You know we talk about human error,” he said. “44 instances of billing more than 24 hours a day. For someone who’s done private attorney work, that just doesn’t hold up.”
The commission voted unanimously to order Shearn to repay the $282,806 and barred her from accepting any new state-paid cases. She can continue to work on the two court-appointed cases she has pending.
They said she could pay with one check or work out a payment plan. Shearn did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The commission also revisited the case of Joseph Lackey, another Miami-Dade based attorney whose billings had been questioned by a judge reviewing his request for payment.
The commission previously referred Lackey to the Florida Bar, but was told Tuesday a bar grievance committee has determined Lackey did not do anything wrong or unethical.
“As to the seven cases JAC brought to The Florida Bar’s attention, a judge ordered full payment in six of the cases and partial payment of fees in the seventh case,” the committee found. “The bar will not step in to undermine a court’s findings of fact. The matters raised by JAC are civil in nature and are not within the proper scope of The Florida Bar’s investigatory authority. As the allegations do not involve ethical issues, this file is being closed.”