Thursday March 13, 2008 -
63°
Lawyer, San Joaquin County battle over fees
Scott Smith

STOCKTON - A former Stockton chiropractor awaiting trail on charges he defrauded insurance companies of millions of dollars is having his legal fees picked up by local taxpayers under a judge's order.

But attorney Daniel Horowitz - a high-dollar lawyer from the East Bay who often gives legal commentary on national TV - said he will drop the case today out of protest because he may be blocked from billing San Joaquin County for all of his work.

If he continues to represent Dr. Wilmer Origel, Horowitz's bill could contribute to a rapidly depleting county fund used to pay local attorneys who represent criminal defendants too poor to hire lawyers themselves.

Local attorneys complain that Horowitz, of Lafayette, is being paid more than his fair share, while Horowitz said two prosecutors with a $1 million budget behind them and three investigators are bent on sending his client to prison. It would not be fair for Origel to mount any less of a defense, leading to certain conviction, Horowitz said.

"You can't throw a million dollars at a man, destroy his business and say we can't defend you," Horowitz said. "They've bankrupted him, essentially."

Origel stands accused of multiple felony charges for insurance fraud totaling $5 million. He's also accused of using anesthesiology without a medical license.

Origel operated a chain of Med-1 Centers in the Central Valley, including one on Stockton's Wilson Way, until his arrest in early 2005. The Modesto man, who is no longer allowed to practice, paid Horowitz during a preliminary hearing last year and says he's now broke.

Horowitz persuaded San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge F. Clark Sueyres in January to sign an order appointing him to be paid through a county fund used to pay a cadre of about 40 attorney members in the Lawyer Referral Service. Horowitz is not a member.

The Lawyer Referral Service is operated by the San Joaquin County Bar Association and matches up local attorneys with indigent criminal defendants who can't be represented by the San Joaquin County Public Defender's Office because a public defender already represents somebody in the case, creating a conflict of interest.

David Baird, executive director of the San Joaquin County Bar Association, said Origel's case is just one of many that threatens to dry up a $3.7 million county fund that pays for the Lawyer Referral Service's criminal defense.

Baird said this year has been especially draining in part because the county District Attorney's Office has aggressively prosecuted gang members picked up in sweeps.

"If the district attorney decides he wants to try more cases, that means there's going to be more expense and more hours spent in defending them," Baird said. "When there's a trial, there always has to be an attorney there."

Baird contends that if a judge ordered Horowitz to be paid through the defense fund, Horowitz will have to follow the same rules as the other attorneys.

Attorneys on the Lawyer Referral Service earn an hourly rate of $75 for less serious cases and up to $125 for cases like death penalty trials. They are capped at $3,500 a week and have to pay a 4 percent administrative fee.

Horowitz said that isn't enough for the local attorneys - or himself. He anticipates that Origel's trial will cost $250,000. The judge's order, which doesn't put a cap on Horowitz's fees, allows him to collect $100 an hour himself and pay a paralegal $50 an hour.

In court papers, Horowitz said his normal hourly billing rate is $450 to $500. In his absence, Origel's complicated case would take another attorney a year to get up to speed at a cost of $200,000, Horowitz said.

Lodi attorney Russell Humphrey, who represents chiropractor Michael Yates in a similar case, said Tuesday that he understands the complexity of Origel's "paper case" made up of some half-million pages of evidence.

Yet, Humphrey was appointed to represent Yates through the Lawyer Referral Service at a lower rate than Horowitz, and Humphrey said he isn't allowed a paralegal to help him, which isn't fair to his client, he said.

"My goal is to get Mr. Yates a fair trial," Humphrey said. "In order to do that, I believe he needs resources afforded to Mr. Origel. Any other outcome creates an unfair advantage for prosecutors."

Contact reporter Scott Smith at (209) 546-8296 or ssmith@recordnet.com.

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