Panel approved payment of Painter legal fees

A special panel signed off Monday on state reimbursement of $294,054 in fees and expenses associated with the legal defense of Murphy Painter, the former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner who was prosecuted and found not guilty of using law enforcement databases to look up information about people who were not under investigation.

The Attorney Fee Review Board ruled the bills submitted by attorneys who successfully defended Painter against the federal charges were “reasonable” and were not in excess of set hourly rates.

A relieved Painter said after the meeting, “We didn’t want anything that we did not pay for or hadn’t been billed.”

The board action also clears the way for Painter to seek reimbursement of the $180,000 he’s paid, as well as other bills that have not yet been paid in connection with his defense.

House Bill 632 would appropriate the money to cover the costs. State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, sponsored the legislation. The Legislature must approve the spending, then the governor.

A federal District Court jury in December unanimously acquitted Painter of 29 counts of computer fraud and false statements to the FBI.

Painter had been accused of using confidential law enforcement databases to look up information on people who were not tied to any criminal investigations. He also was alleged in his indictment to have falsely told the FBI that all of the searches were for criminal justice purposes.

Painter said he had done nothing wrong and that someone had tampered with his computer. He also said five members of his staff had access to his office, computer and password.

Louisiana law allows state workers and officials to be reimbursed for legal expenses incurred by virtue of their positions if they are ultimately exonerated.

The Jindal administration fired Painter in August 2010.

He had served 14 years as the head of the state agency that oversees licenses and sales of alcohol and tobacco products in Louisiana.

Painter claimed the firing had to do with his denial of an alcohol license for Champions Square adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The Governor’s Office announced Painter’s resignation the same day investigators with the state Office of Inspector General seized his office computer.

Later, the inspector general released a report alleging that Painter improperly accessed both the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database and two Louisiana law enforcement databases.

The invoices of Michael Fawer, Painter’s lead attorney, totaled about $130,000. He billed at a rate of $400 an hour. Other case attorneys who submitted bills for lesser amounts are Al J. Roberts Jr., Frank Holthaus and Tim Meche. Other bills are related to expenses, such as those for a computer expert.

“Is there anything hanging out there that would suggest the numbers are not accurate or in excess of the guidelines we have to abide by?” asked state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie.

Panel member Rick McGimsey, an assistant attorney general, said Meche submitted a $20,000 “flat rate” bill, which makes it difficult to determine whether a “reasonable hourly rate” has been charged.

“We have to have bills that set forth time, expenses and hourly rate,” McGimsey said.

But state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, said Meche supplied information sought in documents submitted for board review when “flat rate” bills are involved.

Martiny said the board forms may need alteration.

McGimsey said the charge Meche submitted is reasonable.

The panel proceeded to accept the legal fees and expenses billed by the four attorneys.