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Judge makes no decision on fee

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger testifies that he made an honest mistake in not reporting $5,000 payment for filing an appeal.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


TAMPA -- There was no decision Wednesday from a federal judge inquiring into how Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger accepted $5,000 to file an appeal for a convicted drug dealer Dillinger had represented while still in private practice.

The drug dealer's new attorney argued that Dillinger ought to be penalized because he violated a rule that required all court-appointed attorneys to report such payments to the court.

Dillinger took the stand Wednesday and said he had never tried to double-bill the government for the work he'd done.

He acknowledged he had violated the reporting rule, but said the situation was so uncommon that neither he nor several other experienced federal court-appointed attorneys had ever heard of the rule.

Dillinger said the net effect of the $5,000 payment he accepted was to reduce the total taxpayers' bill for the appeal of Claudio Andres Acuna, who is serving a 19-year sentence for heroin trafficking.

"I always thought that if you could do something to save the government some money, that's a good thing," Dillinger said.

The $5,000 came from church officials in Acuna's native country of Chile, Dillinger said.

Given the nature of the charges at trial, Dillinger said he had taken pains to learn about the source of the legal fee.

Dillinger accepted the $5,000 to research and file a brief appealing Acuna's conviction. He said he would have charged $20,000 in private practice for such a brief.

A federal prosecutor said in court Wednesday that in her opinion the brief Dillinger filed was among the best she had seen in her 18 years in local federal courts.

Dillinger said he tried to present oral argument on Acuna's behalf after his election as public defender in 1996.

But state law forbade him to accept outside clients, and the office of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles refused to grant Dillinger an exception, saying Chiles would suspend Dillinger if he continued to represent private clients such as Acuna.

Dillinger also said the strain of representing Acuna at trial had aggravated a heart condition.

Acuna's new court-appointed attorney, Josephine Gagliardi, argued that Dillinger should be punished for not reporting the outside fee while he was still technically court-appointed.

"I do not begrudge Mr. Dillinger the money," Gagliardi said.

"He should have notified the court."

Chief U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich, who presided over Acuna's trial and Dillinger's appointment, said at the end of the daylong hearing she would issue a written finding by July 7.

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Larry Dougherty can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or dougherty@sptimes.com

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