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Baltimore City

State audit says Baltimore court clerks left millions of dollars uncollected

Baltimore Circuit Court clerks have revamped procedures on the heels of a scathing legislative audit that found the office neglected to pursue $7.8 million in long-overdue accounts and never bothered to bill roughly $1 million in criminal case fees during the 2010 fiscal year.

The 15-page report also says that the office does not ensure proper record-keeping — even of criminal case dispositions — or maintain adequate oversight of multiple functions, including juror payments and the issuance of business licenses.

"Numerous deficiencies in the procedures and controls were noted," auditor Bruce A. Myers wrote in a letter to the state Joint Audit Committee, which reviews such findings.

He attached a response to the audit from the clerk's office, which says billing and record-keeping processes have since been strengthened.

Myers' report — dated June 3, but distributed to the public Monday — covers a three-year period from 2008 through mid-September 2010, when recession blanketed the nation. More than 100,000 Maryland jobs were lost during that period, along with revenue streams for both the state and city, making cash collection critical.

The audit's findings, first reported by The Daily Record newspaper, came as a blow to longtime clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr., who has governed the office since 1998 and failed to repair some of its pressing problems, according to the report.

Conaway declined to comment for this article Tuesday afternoon, saying he was unhappy with statements he made earlier in the day to The Baltimore Sun's editorial board, telling one member "it's not [his] job" to collect unpaid funds.

"I'm not supposed to go out and approach criminals," he said, adding that it's unlikely offenders will pay up, anyway. "Criminals are not going to pay fines unless they rob someone to pay fines," he told the board member. "Criminals are criminals."

Conaway is one of a half-dozen Democratic candidates in the Baltimore mayor's race, though he's not much of a contender in the crowded field, according to Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

The report won't "hurt [Conaway's] mayoral chances in any significant way," Crenson said, because there is little "chance he was going to win."

Conaway, who was re-elected to his clerk position last year, and Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the state's Court of Appeals, sent a letter to Myers earlier this month, outlining their response to the identified deficiencies.

They also pointed out that the $7.8 million figure is an "accumulation" of five decades worth of "uncollected fines and costs."

"There have been attempts … to collect," the letter said.

The clerk's office acts as a sort of reception desk for the courts, dealing with the public, answering questions, accepting legal filings and keeping track of the day's schedule. But clerks are also responsible for collecting fees, maintaining records and issuing various licenses.

They closed out nearly 18,000 criminal cases during fiscal year 2010 and took in more than $37 million in revenue — 60 percent of which went to the city, while 38 percent went to the state. (The remainder, about $563,000 was distributed to other organizations, including the Bar Library.)

The uncollected or unbilled millions identified in the legislative audit are equal to a quarter of the office's annual revenue.

The auditors submitted six findings and recommendations to the Joint Audit Committee, half of which were left over from the last audit, which analyzed a 31-month period from June 2005 through 2007.

"We determined that the Office had not satisfactorily addressed these findings," the newest audit states, adding that the older recommendations are therefore "repeated in this report."

The deficiencies identified include:

• Insufficient controls over assessing and collecting both criminal and civil court fees.

• A lack of direction for Baltimore sheriffs, who are mandated by law to help retrieve criminal case funds in the city.

• No independent review of juror payments to ensure propriety.

• Inadequate controls over business licensing.

• The office did not independently verify criminal case dispositions to guarantee their proper recording.

Auditors said accurate recording of criminal case outcomes is "critical for public safety," but it's also of vital importance to defendants. Their criminal records affect their reputations and future court proceedings.

A clerical error in 2000 nearly cost Thomas Perrin years of freedom. A judge sentenced him to a 20-year term for illegal gun possession, based on the erroneous belief that Perrin had three prior drug convictions, making him an "armed career criminal" eligible for an enhanced sentence.

It turns out Perrin had only two priors. A clerk had mistakenly entered a third into an electronic records system. Perrin's sentence was corrected last year to a six-year term.

"We have to double-check everything," Perrin's defense attorney, C. Justin Brown, said at the time. "Because when it's not done properly, the results can be disastrous."

In their letter to auditor Myers, Conaway and Bell said that court personnel "now verify dispositions to independent source documents on a test basis each month," jury funds are appropriately overseen and the office is revamping its business license process, which had been criticized as too lax.

The office is also in the process of developing a memorandum of understanding with Baltimore sheriffs and "currently implementing corrective actions to resolve older accounts," Bell and Conaway said in the letter, though they noted that "some accounts in the $7.8 million balance are excessively aged."

The men plan to seek guidance on what to do about those accounts.

Audit Director Gregory Hook said their response will likely satisfy the Maryland Joint Audit Committee, which has had the report for several weeks now. His office performs audits on more than 200 state agencies every three years, and most issues are resolved without a legislative hearing.

Only time will tell how well their fixes take. Bell and Conaway also sent a letter to Myers in 2008 after the last audit, concurring with its findings and offering solutions.

The next audit is scheduled for 2014 — the same year Conaway comes up for re-election.

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