The Hancock County Court House in Ellsworth Credit: Gabor Degre

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature’s government watchdog agency will conduct a more thorough investigation into how the state provides legal services for the poor, with a specific focus on the oversight of the program and its procedures.

The Government Oversight Committee’s Tuesday vote directing the Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability builds on previous efforts the office has made to look into the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. The office provides legal representation to poor people accused of crimes in the only state without some kind of public defender’s office.

The new review will look at how consistent the commission’s staff is in following its payment procedures and whether those practices allow the commission to accomplish its goals, according to a December project direction statement.

The investigation will not consider the quality of representation, adequacy of attorney rates of pay or whether a public defender’s office should be introduced, issues that have been raised after the quality of representation of poor defendants was criticized by legal advocates and called unconstitutional by the American Civil Liberties of Maine.

The investigation also builds on a critical report from the Sixth Amendment Center, which found earlier this year that the system lacks safeguards to guarantee financial oversight and quality. But OPEGA director Danielle Fox said her office will have access to data that group may not have, which may allow them to “explain situations” in a more detailed way.

The project direction statement specifies the office may be able to “separate potential actual overbilling from outliers that may have been due to error or that just appear to be instances of overbilling.”

The commission’s spending has nearly doubled since it adopted its system in 2009 and hourly fees for private attorneys on the roster — capped at $60 with some exceptions — have been assailed as too low. It has faced financial problems virtually since its inception and has three staff members to oversee nearly 600 attorneys each year.

The Sixth Amendment Center’s report cited a lack of oversight that leaves “serious concerns” about potential overbilling, inadequate performance by some attorneys, and potential conflicts of interest in assigning attorneys and financial screening of clients as main issues with the system.

In fiscal year 2018, 25 lawyers billed more than $124,800, the amount equaling the $60 cap multiplied by a 40-hour work week and 52 weeks in a year, and seven lawyers exceeded that threshold on average during the past five fiscal years.

While there are legitimate reasons the cap can be surpassed, the report found the commission did not know about the high bills — an indication of a lack of “financial oversight” the Sixth Amendment Center said was compounded by a small staff. Part of OPEGA’s review will consider the “sufficiency” of the commission’s response to internal concerns.