Dowie trial: Fleishman accountants say they never suspected overbilling

LOS ANGELES: "I would have preferred not to be here yesterday and today," said former Fleishman-Hillard account executive Eric Moses, continuing his testimony in the Wednesday edition of the Doug Dowie-John Stodder trial.

LOS ANGELES: "I would have preferred not to be here yesterday and today," said former Fleishman-Hillard account executive Eric Moses, continuing his testimony in the Wednesday edition of the Doug Dowie-John Stodder trial.

Moses could have been speaking for the entire courtroom. Still weeks away from hearing closing statements, not even the witness' Dustin Hoffman-circa-"The Graduate" good looks offered solace for jurors, already bleary-eyed from staring at three weeks of billing-related evidence only an off-kilter accountant could truly appreciate.

"I think everybody hates time entry," Moses emphasized before leaving the stand, noting that - billing issues aside - his experience at Fleishman had been "great," and that he had "learned a lot from Mr. Dowie."

In stark contrast, the next two government witnesses were not only advocates of Fleishman's invoicing system, they seemed to understand it intimately. From the firm's St. Louis-based headquarters, longtime finance department representatives Debra Heckman and Gigi Goforth took the stand to testify regarding their roles in the alleged over-billing scandal.

Heckman-in large eyeglasses, a light grape Bedazzled sweater, slacks, and sensible flats, the very image of a corporate lead biller - responded to questions posed by Assistant US Attorney Adam D. Kamenstein with clear, careful answers.

"Just exactly what [LA office staffers] put on the worksheets was what I did," Heckman said, explaining the process in which she entered handwritten changes made to so-called billing blue sheets.

Under cross examination by Dowie attorney Tom Holliday - red pen in hand, his constant gesturing and back-and-forth pacing a veritable dance with the podium - Heckman referred to PR practitioners as "counselors," noting that she had "no idea" what role Dowie played in connection with billing worksheets. While there "were quite a few changes" made to LA office bills, Heckman said, she never suspected anything illegitimate.

Goforth, Fleishman's time-entry system administrator, agreed she had no reason to call foul play. Questioned by Assistant US Attorney Cheryl O'Connor Murphy, Goforth explained the process of entering time in the PeopleSoft computer program, touching upon issues of forgotten time, and time held over from previous months. She also acknowledged the "ineffectiveness" of accounting for allegedly overlooked employee hours with late, handwritten entries.

Because time-entry problems "seemed to be more frequent" in the LA office than elsewhere in the Fleishman network, Goforth recalled, she and firm partner Mike Roth made two West Coast trips to train employees on more productive procedures, once in May 2001 and again in May 2003. Both Dowie and Stodder were present at the latter session, Goforth said.

When Stodder attorney Michael Resch asked her if the Fleishman billing system was "inadequate" - referencing a 2005 conversation Goforth had with the government - the witness defended the PeopleSoft program with a hint of what some would call passion.

"No, I don't," she snapped, as if Resch had insulted her only child, clarifying, "The process was inadequate."

And though on occasion employees' inability to enter their hours in a timely fashion made it "increasingly harder" and "at times ... overwhelming" to complete the LA billing process, she said, "I never suspected anything was wrong."

The day's final witness was former Fleishman VP Hilary Norton, who said she joined the agency in October 2001 in part because then-GM "Dowie was considered the best in the business" and he had built a public affairs practice with which she was eager to be a part.

Reporting initially to SVP of Public Affairs Steve Sugerman - prior to Stodder's tenure with the firm - Norton was tapped to manage the LA Convention and Visitors Bureau account. It was in this role, Norton recalled, that she first encountered the practice of invoicing for "value of service" rather than actual time worked.

"It was not an easy concept for me to understand," Norton admitted, echoing a sentiment shared Tuesday by Eric Moses.

Introduced to her by Sugerman in late 2001 as "value billing," Norton said she would adjust employee's hours to meet the invoice dollar amounts Sugerman provided. "You can't necessarily put a stop watch on how long it takes to write a press release or create a media plan," Norton said, explaining how she would choose which activity times to boost. Staffers' more creative endeavors, she said, were the "most easily imprecise."

Norton also responded to queries about Fleishman client the Worldwide Church of God, another Stodder-era account allegedly fraudulently billed by the firm's public affairs division. At times, she said, the Pasadena, CA-based client rejected invoice charges - particularly for administrative services and travel time - even after its 10% non-profit discount.

The trial is expected to resume today, with continued testimony by Norton.

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