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Alabama court audit finds 14 noncompliance issues

A state judicial education fund was used for non-education expenses including alcohol, excursions and entertainment, according to an audit of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Alabama Examiners of Public Accounts’ report found 14 instances of noncompliance with state laws and regulations,  including not submitting more than $4 million worth of contracts to the Legislative Contract Review Committee, not ensuring employment statuses were checked in the state-required E-Verify system and allowing participants in conferences to claim per diem reimbursements when their hotel and meal expenses were already paid.

The report, published on Friday, examined a period from Oct.1, 2017 to Sept. 30 2022.

The Administrative Office of Courts has administrative oversight of the state’s judicial system, including municipal courts. The administrative director of courts is selected by the state’s chief justice.

Many of the report’s findings center on the Alabama Judicial College Education Fund, a non-profit fund that operates outside the State Treasury. The Alabama Judicial College Education Fund is funded through examination, conference and other fees to provide continuing education to judges and court employees.

Another finding said the AOC was charging an unauthorized fee for foreign language interpreters’ written and oral examinations and putting that money in the 501c3 fund.

Finding No. 5 in the report says that even though public funds were being directed to the non-profit fund, its existence was not disclosed to the Examiner’s office.

The examiner’s report recommends only money appropriated by the Legislature should be put toward judicial education.

Rich Hobson, director of the courts since 2019, said in a written statement to Alabama Daily News that the examiner’s report found no missing or misappropriated funds. He also said the judicial college 501(c)(3) fund is nearly 45 years old and has never been addressed in previous audits.

“Since that time, judicial education has not been paid for by appropriations to the Administrative Office of Courts for judicial education from the state of Alabama, but instead at least nine different groups of public officials and employees have continuously received judicial education by being charged conference registration fees to attend,” Hobson said. “Prior administrations established the practice of placing fees received for judicial education in the Judicial College fund, which covered costs associated with educational conferences.”

The AOC will pursue the possibility of legislation to assure the employees working for the Judicial College Division at the AOC will also be able to work to meet the goal of conducting judicial education for the officials and employees of the Alabama Unified Judicial System, Hobson said.

Other report findings said the AOC did not have adequate controls in place to monitor district and county level activities. Lack of controls resulted in at least one county’s AOC employees receiving nearly $18,000 in unallowable compensation. Meanwhile, the AOC did not have an accurate accounting of all municipal courts and nearly 200 did not submit annual caseload information.

Hobson said the AOC is working to comply with 2022 legislation requiring municipal courts to report their total court cases in a fiscal year, revenue collected by a municipal court and where the revenue is allocated.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who sponsored that 2022 municipal reporting legislation, called the AOC audit findings disappointing.

“The government needs to abide by the laws, rules and procedures that it sets for itself just like it sets for the public,” said Orr, chairman of the education budget committee and member of the General Fund committee, both of which help fund the court system.

Orr sponsored legislation that in 2020 put a constitutional amendment before voters to have the selection of the administrative director of courts hired by the entire supreme court, not just the chief justice. That amendment narrowly failed.

“Seeing this report makes me want to try again to improve the management of the court system,” Orr told Alabama Daily News.

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