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Court-appointed attorneys hope for swift justice

As if sitting through any five-month trial isn't reason enough, several attorneys in the Sooner Defense of Florida Inc. contracting fraud trial now have an extra incentive for the case to end _ they could be working for free.

Because seven of the nine defendants in the case could not afford to hire attorneys, the federal court appointed counsel. For those lawyers, the appointment has turned into a cash-flow folly.

The national fund that pays court-appointed defense attorneys ran out of money May 27. The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a supplemental emergency appropriation of $55-million, but the measure still awaits Senate approval this week.

For attorneys Dwight Wells, Daniel Martinez, DeeAnn Athan, Dan Daly and Thomas Hanlon, all of Tampa, Lee Fugate of Clearwater, and Thomas Ostrander of Sarasota, it means coming to trial every day for probably another month at least, without the prospect of payment until October.

Not that they haven't been paid so far. As of May 10, taxpayers have dished out about $317,000 in attorney's fees and defense costs for the five former Sooner officials and two Defense Department employees, accused of accepting bribes from Sooner.

Under the rules, one-third of the amount billed by appointed counsel is withheld until the end of the case, so there will be about another $100,000 due them when the Sooner trial ends.

The lawyer payments are based on a rate of $40 an hour, or $60 an hour for time in court, a rate well below what most of the attorneys would charge to private clients.

"This case has been tough in several respects," Martinez said. "There are the clients you turn away, because you have to be here."

Even keeping up with ongoing matters is hard, he said, but has been possible because of U.S. District Court Judge William Castagna's leniency in allowing the lawyers to be absent for some other court appearances.

"But when this is all over, the pipeline has dried up," said Martinez, who like many of the appointed attorneys is a sole practitioner. "You sit down at your desk and it's like starting (a practice up) all over."

A couple of Pinellas County lawyers will be honored this week at the Florida Bar's annual meeting in Orlando.

William W. Gay, 74, of Gay & Gordon in St. Petersburg, is one of seven Florida lawyers being honored for 50 years of legal service.

Gay won't make it to the banquet though; this is also the year he celebrates his 50th wedding anniversary. He is taking his wife and their children's families on an Alaskan cruise this week.

But as he packed last Friday, Gay had a few words about half-a-century of lawyering. Like most lawyers his age, Gay said things were different when he began in the 1940s.

"In those days, the bar was smaller, you knew everyone on a first-name basis. A handshake cemented deals," he said. "Today, you just don't have the personal touch."

But the changes haven't soured Gay from his practice in estate planning, probate, guardianship and real estate. "I'm enjoying it," he said. "I have no present intentions to quit in the immediate future."

Skip Dvornik, 32, of Clearwater, has been named "Most Outstanding Young Lawyer" by the Young Lawyers Division of the Florida Bar.

"It was a real surprise," Dvornik said. "It was high honor enough to be nominated by the local group. It's very humbling."

Dvornik led other lawyers' involvement in a day of fun for underprivileged children and has worked several free cases for clients who could not afford an attorney. In 1992, he devoted more than 125 hours to such pro bono services.

Dvornik is a commercial litigator in the firm Richard, Gilkey, Fite, Slaughter, Pratesi & Ward.