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Local attorney faces discipline over billings

Local attorney Ben Swift billed the government for working 29 hours in a single day, 23 hours on another day, 21.5 hours on a third day and 21 hours another day, according to an audit of his billings as the court-appointed lawyer for people too poor to hire their own attorney.

The grievance committee of the Dayton Bar Association audited Swift’s billings after a Dayton Daily News investigation in March 2010 revealed that Swift received more appointed counsel fees than any attorney in the state.

Swift is now facing a disciplinary action filed by the Dayton Bar Association with the Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Commissioners on Grievances & Discipline. The disciplinary case became public this week.

Initially, the Dayton Bar wanted Swift’s law license permanently revoked and a requirement that he pay full restitution. But most recently both sides agreed that: Swift violated professional conduct rules that govern licensed attorneys; up to a 2-year suspension of his law license would be a proper sanction; and Swift should repay $50,000 in fees by working on appointed counsel cases for free.

Ultimately, the Ohio Supreme Court decides what sanction to impose.

Gary Leppla, Swift’s attorney, said Swift is guilty of sloppy record-keeping but he did perform the work.

“He is an outstanding lawyer. Everyone has acknowledged that. It’s about failing to accurately and properly record and submit his time,” Leppla said. “Obviously, the time was excessive. He knows that. He admits that.”

The state and county pay appointed counsel bills, which are approved by local courts. Swift, who was admitted to the bar in 1995, works predominately in juvenile and adult court in Montgomery County but also handles cases in Clark, Greene and Warren counties. The bulk of his appointments had been from Montgomery County Juvenile Court.

In 2007, Swift was paid $32,330 in appointed counsel fees for 694 hours of work in the four counties. In 2008, he was paid $131,890 for 2,967 billable hours, and in 2009 he was paid $86,105 for 1,883 hours.

Auditors found that on four occasions he billed for 20-plus hour days and on 48 occasions he billed for 14-plus hour days.

At one point, Swift ranked No. 1 in the state for representing people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer on their own, according to records kept by the Ohio Public Defender’s office. Courts hire private attorneys to handle indigent cases when a public defender isn’t available.

The courts usually rotate appointments among a list of qualified attorneys. But a Daily News investigation in March 2010 found that of the 170 attorneys on the juvenile court list, just five since 2007 had received 20.7 percent of the appointment cases. Swift topped the list with 848 cases.

Swift’s disciplinary case is scheduled for a hearing on Monday, Sept. 16.

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