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Public Defender audit finds flaws

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender must fine-tune its procedures for determining who is eligible for its services and improve its bookkeeping and fee collection practices, according to a legislative audit published Tuesday.

The audit, which covered mid-2007 through mid-2010, also faulted the indigent legal defense agency for contracting out network and database management instead of handling it in-house and for paying one employee for 168 days after the person left — to the tune of $20,560.

Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe Jr., who took over the office in December 2009, largely agreed with the auditors’ recommendations but called their criticisms “relatively arcane,” and said his administration has already begun to fix the identified problems.

“I don’t think the legislative audit was all that damning,” DeWolfe said Tuesday. “It was just sort of administrative stuff that we’ve been trying to resolve for years, so I think we’re getting a handle on all of it. That’s pretty much the message to the legislature, that we’re resolving the issues and moving forward.”

Neither Nancy Forster, who led the agency from 2004 through August 2009, nor the two trustees who fired her a year and a half ago returned calls for comment Tuesday afternoon. The state senator and delegate who chair the General Assembly’s Joint Audit Committee also could not be reached.

The OPD did not consider applicants’ expenses in addition to their income and assets until May when the Court of Appeals decided they must, and it still does not require documentation to substantiate the reported expenses or have a system for independently verifying such submissions, according to the report from the Office of Legislative Audits. There should be more independent supervisory review of eventual eligibility determinations as well, according to the audit.

DeWolfe said the agency’s dilemma has long been that “some folks feel like we’re representing too many people, and the court is telling us that we’ve been too strict in qualifying people. So we’re absolutely doing our best to walk that line.”

The auditors also found the OPD’s failure to collect administrative fees from clients — $25 for juveniles and $50 for adults — had resulted in a loss of $1.9 million, including $330,000 in the last fiscal year. This has been a problem for the past five audits, dating to 1995, according to the audit. The OPD should also have a better procedure for billing clients for court-ordered fees.

DeWolfe said that the fees for those 40,000 cases stretched back decades and that his fiscal department has been working with the state’s Central Collection Unit to sort out those records and collect some of that money. But hounding criminal defendants for small fees is not the OPD’s top priority, DeWolfe said.

“Our mission isn’t to collect money from our clients; it’s to represent them if they can’t afford an attorney,” DeWolfe said.

The review also found that one OPD employee — the agency’s then-chief financial officer Van A. Lewis, it turns out — had “unilateral control” over client accounts receivable records and related activity which resulted in “a lack of assurance as to the propriety” of those records.

DeWolfe, who fired Lewis days after being picked to succeed Forster, says new CFO Kathleen L. Mattis is not the only fiscal officer who deals with the records.

Whether the agency can create two new permanent positions to perform the computer networking duties that had been outsourced to Verizon for the past five years, which the auditors suggest as a money-saving move, is still an open question, DeWolfe said. The contract cost approximately $1.9 million during fiscal years 2007 through 2010.

“It’s a very sophisticated level of service and system that we need the extra technical support for, and it was approved by the Department of Budget and Management year after year,” DeWolfe said of the arrangement the auditors want to scrap. “We will try to do that, but it’s difficult for the salaries we pay to get the kind of expertise that’s needed to hold a system like that together.”

The unnamed employee who was paid for nearly half a year he or she was not working for the OPD was one of two people who remained on payroll after they had left (the money was recovered from the latter) in addition to six people who got more liquidated sick leave than they were owed. DeWolfe said the “human error” was discovered internally and will not happen again.

The audit did not assess the OPD’s progress on the budgetary and case management findings from a November 2009 OLA performance audit, but DeWolfe declared his administration has “turned those issues around.”

“We’ve balanced the budget. We have zero deficiencies this year,” DeWolfe said, a change from the agency’s years under Forster. “We’re very proud of that.”

DeWolfe also noted the agency was awarded a $200,000 grant to teleconference with its clients in prison. Such long-distance meetings now occur between the OPD’s offices in Baltimore and some of the state’s prisons, and will soon happen elsewhere around the state, DeWolfe said.

“I think we’re doing really well,” he said.