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Virginia spends big on private attorneys for state officials

(AP) Virginia spent hundreds of dollars an hour for private attorneys for state officials, according to an annual report from the attorney general’s office.

Last year, the state spent $14.8 million on outside attorneys for government officials, the Daily Press reported. The report showed the hourly rates ranged from $125 for immigration legal work to $835 for “export control matters.”

According to the newspaper, those hourly rates are often more than an attorney hired to represent people who can’t afford a lawyer is supposed to charge for a felony criminal case. For those attorneys, it’s $90 an hour with a $1,235 cap for the whole case, unless a judge authorizes more.

“Those guys in the big firms, they’re good lawyers,” Ed Riley, a Richmond defense attorney, said of the high-powered attorneys brought in for some state cases. “But how far does the government need to go to protect the government? How much should that cost, versus the poor guy that doesn’t know what’s going on?”

Michael Kelly, a spokesman from the attorney general’s office, said expert counsel is often needed in certain areas of the law, where only a few firms have expertise, adding that contracts are competitively bid and taxpayers “get a rate that is well below market in almost all instances.”

Defendants in Virginia’s more populated areas who are unable to afford an attorney usually get representation from salaried attorneys attached to local public defenders offices. Others rely on private attorneys who are assigned cases and bill taxpayers for their work, according to David Johnson, executive director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission.

Up until 2007, an attorney couldn’t charge more than $1,235 to defend a felony punishable by more than 20 years, and for lesser felonies the cap was $445. Now judges can waive those caps if an attorney requests it.

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