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Office of Public Defender failed to maintain records, seek timely payment

The Office of the Public Defender failed to ensure clients were financially eligible, and the agency failed to submit invoices to the state comptroller for timely payment, according to an audit released Thursday by the Office of Legislative Audits.

A review of records for the agency found that the public defender collected less than one-third of the administrative fees it assessed in fiscal 2013 and had a backlog of $24.3 million in uncollected fees as of June 30, 2013.

Legislative Auditor Thomas J. Barnickel III, in a letter to the Joint Audit Committee, wrote that because their applications were not supported with income and expense documentation, “there was a lack of assurance that certain clients were actually eligible to receive services.”

The 15-page audit also found that the agency still needs to improve its budgeting and efforts to meet caseload standards for its attorneys. The auditors further reported that the department had budget deficiencies totaling $5 million between fiscal 2011 and 2013 and delayed payment of some expenses until appropriations from a subsequent budget year became available.

In its response, Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe agreed that applications should be completed and maintained for all active clients but said state statute does not require “any assessment of an applicant’s need if the individual reports net income and assets below 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.”

“It is important to note that no eligibility determinations were found to be incorrect as a result of the audits and reviews conducted,” the public defender’s office noted in its response.

The response noted that the office will review and seek amendment of some state regulations regarding payment of fees by clients to bring them in line with its own internal policies.

With the exception of unaccompanied juveniles and adults confined to mental institutions, the public defender’s office is required to collect an administrative fee of $50 for adults and $25 for juveniles.

State auditors tested 20 cases and found that fees were not properly assessed in eight cases. The audit noted that the public defender’s office agreed with the findings in three of those cases but said that five others were not assessed fees for a number of reasons, including some of the cases being continuations of existing cases.

Additionally, the Office of the Public Defender noted in its reply that it is working toward complying with requirements that invoices be submitted to the comptroller’s office so that payment can be made within 30 days.

“For FY2014, approximately 28,000 invoices were processed, a 14 percent increase over FY2013, of which 18 percent were submitted to the comptroller after 25 days,” according to the agency response. “That percentage drops to nearly 8 percent when the effects of the carryover from FY2013 are excluded.”