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Maryland Judiciary fails to monitor contracts, audit finds

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Find more breaking news here. Have a news tip? Email newstips@baltimoresun.com

Maryland's court system has failed for years to properly monitor how it spent tens of millions of dollars in contracts and lacked adequate oversight to prove it was getting the most cost-effective deals for taxpayers, a state audit released Friday has found.

The Maryland Judiciary lacked "sufficient documentation" to support four contract awards totaling $26 million between July 1, 2012, and Dec. 20, 2015, the audit reported.

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"Consequently, there was a lack of assurance the State received the best value for these awards," according to the report by the Department of Legislative Services' audit division.

Auditors said the judiciary did not provide adequate cost-benefit analyses to support the award of two contracts to existing vendors: a five-year, $21 million contract for Internet services, and a four-year, $2.1 million contract for a digital recording system. In the latter contract, there was a competing bid for almost two-thirds less, $736,000, according to the audit.

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Additionally, the judiciary didn't save information about the losing bidders' proposals for three contracts totaling about $5 million.

The judiciary's procurement policy "states that all bids and proposals shall be available for public inspection," the report said. Yet the court system "routinely destroyed proposals from losing bidders."

"State law prohibits the destruction of any record that relates to the financial operation of a unit of State government until the audit requiremenst are met," the report said. "Without this information, the propriety of the Judiciary's award decisions cannot be assured."

The audit also raised concerns about the number of staff allowed to access the purchasing and payment system; the security of its financial management system and database; the processing of traffic citations; and the controls over its equipment and warehouses.

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In a written response, court officials stated they have fully responded to all of the audit's findings and recommendations.

"The Judiciary will ensure that award decisions, including sole source awards, are thoroughly documented," states the response written by Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Mary Ellen Barbera and State Court Administrator Pamela Q. Harris.

New guidelines for reviewing invoices from vendors are expected to be implemented by September, the officials wrote. The judiciary updated its policy to retain documents until audits are completed.

The findings come as the Maryland Judiciary is beginning to prepare a report requested by the Department of Legislative Services to explain "the apparent pattern of overbudgeting" for the state's Clerks of the Circuit Court offices, according to budget analysis documents. Between 2012 and 2016 the clerks offices were allocated up to 9 percent more than they spent, a surplus that funded other efforts "without the opportunity for the General Assembly to vet those purposes," according to the legislative services analysis.

The analysis stated that lawmakers were concerned that the budget process "leads to inflated budget requests" for the clerks and that they want the Maryland Judiciary to "ensure that future budget requests reflect actual needs."

Lawmakers reduced the Maryland Judiciary's budget request of $576 million by nearly $14 million for the next fiscal year.

Court officials responded to those findings by saying much of the surplus money was spent on "critical needs" such as courthouse security, including bullet resistant barriers and security cameras, as well as funding to assist people who represent themselves in legal proceedings. But they agreed to produce a report by Nov. 1.

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