Maryland's Office of Legislative Audits has uncovered some doozies of fraud, waste and abuse in its day, but that's not what its recent report on the Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk's Office found. Rather, it described an office with record keeping procedures so sloppy that it's impossible to know for sure whether everything is being done correctly; in some instances, auditors reported that funds could be misappropriated without detection. The auditors documented millions in uncollected or unaccounted-for fees and found no clear delineation of responsibility between the clerk and the sheriff on who was responsible for some parts of the process. What's worse, all three of the faults auditors had described on previous occasions remained unfixed.
The big number in the audit is a finding that the court has failed to collect some $8.2 million in criminal case fees that it is owed. The response from Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway? "It's not my job."
In fact, under state law, it is — though the longstanding practice in Baltimore City, which predates Mr. Conaway's tenure and which is also legal, is for the task to be delegated to the sheriff's office. In an interview, Mr. Conaway insisted that he does not bear any responsibility for the uncollected fees and should not be faulted for the failure to collect. "I'm not supposed to go out and approach criminals," he said. "That's not my job. I don't carry a gun or anything." Moreover, he seemed to suggest that the $8.2 million, which he says has accumulated over decades, shouldn't be surprising. "Criminals are not going to pay fines unless they rob someone to pay fines," he said. "Criminals are criminals."
Whatever Mr. Conaway's interpretation of his responsibilities may be, he should realize that something about his office's arrangement with the sheriff's department isn't working well. According to the audit, the court is allowed to assess $205 in fees from individuals found guilty of a crime. Yet, in fiscal 2010, a year in which the city Circuit Court handled 17,929 criminal cases, criminal fee collections totaled just $178,950. Not all of the nearly 18,000 cases ended in guilty verdicts, of course, but it is difficult to imagine that the court is not owed significantly more than that.
It is, however, difficult to figure out with certainty how much the courts should be collecting, because Mr. Conaway's office has not adequately documented judges' decisions to waive or reduce fees. Auditors estimated that in fiscal 2010, court fees of between $1.1 million and $1.3 million for approximately 7,500 case appearances with a guilty verdict were not assessed. How many of those fees had been waived by judges and how many simply went uncollected, the auditors were unable to say because of a lack of documentation.
But the problems were not limited to criminal court fees. Mr. Conaway said civil court fees are his job, and the auditors found fault with the handling of those, too. According to the report, the office did not document its efforts to verify that collections of land record and civil court fees were deposited; three people who no longer work in the office had access to the automated cash register system (a problem also found in the previous audit); and there were inadequate controls of pre-numbered receipt forms, a bookkeeping fault that meant "funds could be misappropriated without detection."
The auditors also found problems with the way the office handles cash disbursements to jurors. They first found fault with the record keeping in the jury fund in 2002 and reported on it again in 2005 and 2008. Since then, the clerk's office has revamped its procedure, auditors said, but it still had the potential for cash to be "misappropriated without detection."
In a response to the audit signed jointly with Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Mr. Conaway promised to develop by Sept. 30 a memorandum of understanding with the sheriff's office delineating who is responsible for what in the effort to collect criminal fees and establishing clear oversight by the clerk's office. He also agreed to tighten a variety of other bookkeeping procedures faulted by the auditors. But given his failures to follow through on previous audits, it's hard not to be skeptical. And all the more so given the tenor of his comments today, in which he accused the auditors of "throwing responsibility on me I shouldn't have" and suggested that their harsh report must be related to the upcoming city election in which Mr. Conaway is a candidate for mayor.
Recently, Mr. Conaway has been complaining that his campaign isn't being taken seriously enough. But given the management challenge inherent in running the city, neither the auditor's findings nor his response to them is helping his cause. "Not my job" won't cut it in City Hall.