Pasco attorney says Franklin County won't pay up for work on murder case

A Pasco attorney who helped defend a man convicted of gunning down an east Pasco couple said Franklin County is refusing to pay him for his work on the murder trial.

Moe Spencer served as co-counsel to Shelley Ajax defending Jose Garcia-Morales, who was found guilty in April after a two-week trial.

Spencer said he put in more than 220 hours of time on the case, including 169 hours during the trial alone, and said Franklin County owes him $16,656.

"I'm really upset. I'm mad. I'm angry. I feel slighted," Spencer told the Herald. "It's leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I worked really hard in that case. I expect to get paid, just like everybody else."

Spencer said he has been told the county is not going to pay him because he agreed to take on the case pro bono, but Spencer said he was told to submit his hours on the case so he could be paid.

Eric Hsu, the indigent defense coordinator for the Benton and Franklin Counties Office of Public Defense, along with Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant, said they couldn't talk about the case because of the pending claim against the city.

Both, however, sent copies of Spencer's contract with the county that specifically said he would not get paid for his time on the Garcia-Morales case.

According to the contract, Spencer didn't meet the required standards to represent defendants in murder cases, but "he nevertheless wishes to serve as co-counsel on this case under the supervision of primary counsel, pro bono, for the purpose of gaining experience in criminal defense work."

Spencer has a contract with Franklin County to take cases where the contracted public defenders have a conflict and can't represent the defendant. The contract also says Spencer would get paid $75 per hour for homicide or persistent offender cases.

Spencer has billed the county for just more than 222 hours at $75 an hour.

The contract was signed Feb. 1, 2011, but Spencer said he later was told he would be paid.

"That's why I went forward with the case. I was told to submit your hours and you're going to get paid," he said. "The contract itself is disputed, because even after that contract, I came on under the premise that I'm going to get paid."

Spencer said he was approached by Ajax to join the case after Sant was elected county prosecutor. Sant was one of Garcia-Morales' defense attorneys. Ajax told the court in December 2010 that Spencer was replacing Sant.

Spencer said he was told by Hsu that he didn't have the necessary experience, which Spencer said is a "Catch-22" because he can't get the experience without working on a case.

He said he was then given the OK to join the case and he submitted his hours to Ajax, who was supposed to send them on to Hsu.

In April, Spencer sent his hours directly to Hsu because he hadn't been paid and that's when he found out he wasn't going to get paid.

Spencer, who is represented by Richland attorney John Ziobro, sent a letter in May to the county demanding payment. According to the letter, Ziobro said that when Spencer signed the contract, he "believed that agreement did not include any reference to the Morales case."

Ziobro said Spencer clearly believed he was being compensated for his work and dedicating more than 168 hours to the case in one month had a significant financial impact on him.

"Had he been advised he would not be paid, he may have made a different decision regarding his participating in the Morales trial," the letter said.

Spencer said he didn't take any cases in March while he was prepping for the trial and in trial, when he put in 14 or more hours each day. He said common decency and fairness would dictate that he be treated the same as the other attorneys on murder cases.

A second letter went out this week to County Administrator Fred Bowen asking to take the next step and go to mediation to try to resolve the issue.

"I feel really slighted that the county would really do that. Maybe they don't have enough money to pay everybody ... I don't know," Spencer said. "But I want to get paid."

Garcia-Morales, 28, is serving a 75-year prison sentence for the 2008 shooting at a Manzanita Lane home. His brother, Ramon, was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 67 years in prison.

-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com