In his June 14 article concerning the legislative audit of the Clerk’s Office at the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Steve Lash writes a piece that shows a lack of the thorough investigation that is the hallmark of good journalism. His article is filled with incomplete information and misunderstandings concerning the business processes in the Clerk’s Office and concerning the auditor’s report.
He begins the article by asserting that the Clerk’s Office failed to collect “nearly $8 million in outstanding criminal fees.” Had he done his due diligence in checking the facts he would have easily uncovered the fact that this $7.8 million was an accumulation of unpaid fees and costs that go back to the 1960s. He would have discovered that the reason that the figure exists at all is because in the accounting process in the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office, the decision has been made to carry these aged accounts on the books.
He would have discovered since 1936 the Sheriff’s Office has been responsible for collecting these debts and that that office has made attempts to collect these fees by issuing warrants and dunning notices. He would have discovered that most of the debt, approximately $6 million, was accumulated before Nov. 15, 1999, the date on which the Circuit Court entered into a relationship with the Department of Budget and Management’s Central Collection Unit, for the collection of these debts.
If Mr. Lash had taken the time to read the Legislative Audit report of 2008, he would have noted that the auditors in that visit [cited] these uncollected fees and costs and pointed out that these accounts on the sheriff’s books should have been written off as bad debts years ago.
Mr. Lash indicates that the legislative audit on which he is reporting was a 33-month audit. Again, a little fact checking would have revealed that the legislative auditors arrived at the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on Sept. 12, 2010 and completed their work in December of that same year. The period covered by the audit was from Jan. 1, 2008 through Sept. 12, 2010.
Mr. Lash writes that the Clerk’s Office lacked adequate procedures and controls to verify the collection of land record and civil court fees, estimated at $34.3 million in fiscal 2010, which ended September 30. First, fiscal 2010 ended on June 30, 2010. Again, a reporting error that shows little understanding of the business processes of the judiciary.
Second, the procedures and controls that are used in the collection of land record and civil court fees are ones that have been used for at least 25 years.
In that time they have not been [cited] by internal or legislative auditors as problematic. In both instances, the managers were asked to record their reconciliations by initialing the documents that are used in the reconciliation process. The Clerk’s Office agreed to add the new step in our reconciliation process as it was believed that this would enhance our management practices.
Mr. Lash asserts that “as part of its study, auditors made five deposits of land record fees and six of civil court fees, totaling $1.8 million. The test found that the Clerk’s Office lacked any documentation to verify the deposits.” As stated, this statement is misleading at best or untrue at worst. Mr. Lash himself quotes the auditors in the next paragraph as having said “‘Although we were advised by office management that independent verification of recorded collections to deposit were performed, such verification was not documented. We subsequently verified that these collections were, in fact, deposited by the office.”‘
Again, because Mr. Lash does not understand the business processes of the Clerk’s Office, he does not understand that the long-standing process used in the Accounting Office to verify deposits has been deemed adequate in the past as it has not been [cited] in any previous audits. It is the view of the Clerk’s Office that the Legislative Auditors were recommending an additional safeguard to enhance our business processes and the security of monies collected.
It should be noted that the Clerk’s Office for the Circuit Court for Baltimore City works closely with the Internal Auditors for the Judiciary. The record will show that the Internal Auditors had just conducted an audit of the Clerk’s Office for Baltimore City less than three months before the Sept. 12 arrival of the Legislative Auditors. The Clerk’s Office views the Internal Auditors as a valuable resource as they provide assistance and guidance in recommending improvements to its business practices. These auditors assist in making sure that the management practices of the Clerk’s Office at the Circuit Court for Baltimore City are in compliance with accepted standard judiciary process and procedures.
It should also be noted that the Circuit Court for Baltimore City is the largest and most complex Circuit Court in Maryland. Because of its size and complexity, it is somewhat difficult to master the intricate details of its operation and therefore, somewhat difficult to audit and somewhat difficult of write about. Writing about this court, particularly the Office of the Clerk, requires more than a cursory reading of an audit report and a 10-minute telephone conversation. To do otherwise is to produce an article that misinforms its readers and to paint the subject of the article, the Clerk’s Office, in an untrue light.
Again, Mr. Lash’s unfortunate article is somewhat salacious and unbalanced. A little more research and a little more fact-checking would have resulted in a more informative and accurate article.
Frank M. Conaway, Clerk
Circuit Court for Baltimore City