Public defender accused of double-dipping

February 27, 2013 10:11:52 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


A Columbus woman said she will file a complaint with the Mississippi Bar Association after she paid thousands of dollars to her son's court-appointed attorney.  


Carolyn Orr claims she paid local attorney Steve Wallace $4,000 to represent her son, Eli Orr, on drug charges. 


Since Wallace is paid by the county for his work as a public defender, accepting the payment could be a violation of the MBA's Code of Professional Conduct.  


Eli Orr was arrested and charged with sale of cocaine and possession of cocaine after two separate incidents in May 2008 and April 2009.  


At the time of his initial hearing, Eli Orr said he could not afford an attorney. Wallace, who serves as one of the county's five public defenders, was given Orr's case on Aug. 18, 2009 by circuit judge Lee Howard.  


Unhappy with Wallace's job performance, Eli Orr attempted to fire Wallace before his trial began on Monday. Orr's outburst in the courtroom prompted Howard, the presiding judge, to ask Wallace if his client wished to speak. Eli Orr told Howard that he and his family had paid Wallace $4,000 and he was unhappy with his performance. Howard asked Wallace if he had, in fact, accepted money from Orr. 


"I told him my fee was $3,500 and he paid a partial payment of $900," Wallace said.  


Howard asked Wallace to clarify that he was no longer working as a public defender.  


"This defendant is being represented as paid, not court-appointed?" Howard asked.  


"Yes," Wallace answered. 


Later Monday, Wallace filed an order stating that he was Orr's private attorney, which is required when a public defender becomes a client's private attorney.  


In the order, Wallace said he was retained by Orr's family on Nov. 13, 2010. The order filed Monday afternoon came more than two years after Wallace began receiving money from the Orrs, the family said. 


Eli Orr, Carolyn Orr and Eli Orr's fiancée, all claim that they paid Steve Wallace $4,000. They claim they initially paid him a lump sum of $2,000 in cash and later made smaller payments, also in cash. However, they claim Wallace wrote the receipts on random sheets of paper which have since been lost.  


If Wallace was representing Orr as a public defender and received funds from his client at the same time, it could be grounds for professional misconduct.  


Reached this morning, Wallace said he had no comment on the matter. 


Wallace has served as a public defender since 2004. He is paid $37,728 annually and receives state insurance and retirement benefits. Public defenders in Lowndes County are appointed to approximately 75-to-100 cases each year.  


Clients are appointed public defenders when they are unable to pay for an attorney. While a public defender being hired by their appointed client is rare, it does happen. In that instance, the public defender is required to fill out a form that immediately notifies the court that he has been retained as a private attorney. Wallace waited two years before filing that paperwork and then only after admitting in court that he had received payment from the Orr family.  


Carolyn Orr said she feels Wallace misrepresented himself by receiving money from her son while still being documented with the court as a public defender.  


"He deceived me and he deceived the court," she said.  


Rule 8.4 of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct outlines professional misconduct.  


According to item "c," it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to "engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation." 


Adam Kilgore, General Council for the Mississippi Bar Association, said in the event Carolyn Orr does file a complaint, his office will investigate her claim.  


The MBA receives approximately 550 complaints a year. The complaints are then investigated by the Committee on Professional Responsibility. That committee is made up of six attorneys who are appointed by the MBA president. That committee would investigate Wallace if a complaint is filed. If they believe he has acted improperly, they could possibly impose a public reprimand.  


"The most severe punishment the committee can impose is a public reprimand," Kilgore said.  


A public reprimand would require the lawyer to be called into court and read a written reprimand by the judge.  


Kilgore said if the committee feels the reprimand is not sufficient punishment, it can be sent to a higher court.  


What could be seen as a clerical error at best or professional misconduct at worst could have grave repercussions.  


"If the committee feels that a reprimand would not be sufficient given the ethics violation then they can direct the bar to file a formal complaint with the (Mississippi) Supreme Court, at which time a complaint tribunal is formed and the bar prosecutes the case," Kilgore said. "The potential result from that would be dismissal, private (reprimand), public (reprimand), suspension, disbarment." 


Ca­­­rolyn Orr said she plans on filing the complaint against Wallace today.  


"I've never seen anything like this," she said. "I'm very disappointed."

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.