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Audit finds fault with Baltimore clerk of court’s office

A state audit has found more than $12 million in criminal fees has gone uncollected by the Office of the Clerk of Circuit Court for Baltimore City — including more than $7.8 million highlighted in an audit released three years ago — and that the office also has inadequate controls over the collection of fees in civil cases.

The new report from the Office of Legislative Audits, released Monday, also found the clerk’s office failed “to ensure the propriety of jury fund disbursements,” continuing a pattern identified in audit reports dating back to April 2002.

In a written response included with the most-recent audit, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Clerk of Circuit Court Frank M. Conaway said they agree with the findings and recommendations and have already made changes to address some of the deficiencies.

Conaway, who has been in office since 1998 and is running for re-election in this month’s primary, declined to comment Monday afternoon beyond the written response. He referred questions to Lavina G. Alexander, his chief deputy clerk, who also declined to comment beyond what was in the written response.

The audit covers the period between Sept. 13, 2010 and Oct. 9, 2013. The court fees include $205 assessed on individuals found guilty of a crime, as well as fines and penalties that may be assessed based on the nature of the crime.

The clerk of court’s office was faulted in the audit for not issuing notice letters about fees to criminal defendants or forwarding delinquent accounts to the state’s central collection agency, as well as not pursuing fees when a judge deferred the due date. An April 2013 report from the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office, which maintains the criminal court fees records, found more than 10,000 open accounts totaling $3.2 million with no due date recorded.

According to the audit report, collections during fiscal 2013 totaled approximately $87,400 and, as of June 30, 2013, the accounts receivable balance totaled approximately $12.1 million.

Barbera and Conaway responded that they are “exploring options” for eliminating fees due prior to January 2009. Conaway has said $6 million of the debt was accumulated prior to 1999, when the clerk’s office first began working with the city sheriff’s office to collect the fees.

Regarding the civil fees, auditors were told 800 people had access to office’s automated cash register system, including people employed by other state agencies. But a test of 30 employees “who were assigned critical capabilities” found seven who could perform “incompatible functions” — specifically, they could both process fee receipts and void transactions. Auditors recommended the office “restrict the assignment of critical system functions to employees who require such capabilities to perform their job duties.”

The office collected $1.2 million in civil fees in fiscal 2013, according to the report.

Barbera and Conaway responded they would “immediately address the access deficiencies and restrict the assignment of critical system” to the appropriate employees. They also noted the position of an IT specialist who monitored access to the automated cash register system was vacant between December 2012 and this April.

Juror disbursements

Auditors also found the supervisor reviewing the daily cash disbursements to jurors (who are now paid $15 a day) used a system-generated report but did not verify attendance using independent records.

A system-generated report might not be reliable, auditors wrote, because all 18 employees in the office’s jury division can record juror attendance and issue payments.

“Similar conditions regarding the failure to ensure the propriety of jury fund disbursements have been commented upon in our four preceding audit reports dating back to April 2002,” auditors wrote.

Barbera and Conaway said employees in the jury division were cross-trained to maximize resources and that no employee is assigned to pay and register the same group of jurors in a day.

“If [the system] cannot be modified so that access privileges can be adjusted daily, it is not economically practical to restrict one group of employees to pay jurors and another group to register attendance,” they wrote.

The report said $760,000 was paid out to petit jury jurors in fiscal 2013.