Court officials make improvements in response to audits

Chatham County probate judge, clerk of Superior Court took office in January

Two of Chatham County’s recently elected constitutional officers say they’re refining operations in the offices they oversee after end-of-year checkups at their departments showed some areas in need of improvement.

 

Chatham County Probate Judge Tom Bordeaux and Clerk of Superior Court Tammie Mosley told the Savannah Morning News they’re in the process of institutionalizing recommendations made during the past few months by internal auditors, who reviewed their departments’ standing at the start of the current term.


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Mosley and Bordeaux took office in January after their predecessors — longtime Probate Judge Harris Lewis and three-term Superior Court Clerk Dan Massey — retired from the posts. Mosley won the seat in last year’s general primary after defeating fellow Democratic candidate Brenda Kennedy. Bordeaux ultimately ran unopposed for the Probate Court bench. Another candidate, Robert Dennis King, withdrew from the race prior to Election Day.

Internal Audit Director Jeannie Alday said the internal reviews were done at the request of the newly elected officers to help them develop controls and policies in their departments. Especially in the case of the Probate Court, where the reverberations are still being felt some two years after it came to light that a former clerk had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars that had been entrusted to the court, Alday said, management sought recommendations on how they could safeguard against a future occurrence.

“There’s a genuine desire out there, given what they’ve experienced … to ensure that they’ve got the right controls in place, to make sure it never happens again,” she said. “As we do our audits, we are talking to the managers the whole time and going ahead and giving them their management corrective actions. We help coach them in that — what are good controls, things they should be doing — but ultimately they should take responsibility for putting those controls in place.”

 

Probate Court

In Chatham County Probate Court - which oversees wills, property sales, guardianships, gun permits and marriage licenses - auditors found that for, the most part, internal controls and operating procedures at the end of Judge Lewis’ final term were adequate and well managed.

On a rating scale of 1-5 — with 1 being perfect and 5 reserved for serious cases of mismanagement and fraud — the audit completed last month ranks Probate Court a 3 plus, meaning “trends were favorable for achieving objectives.”

However, auditors did note some deficiencies at the court as Bordeaux took up the bench. They recommended the new judge make some changes to get a handle on the possible risks. Among their findings were the lack of reconciliation of bank statements and cash payments, and the department’s reliance on paper as it backs up documents and reports. The document notes that most of the issues at the court at the end of last year will be addressed when it fully incorporates a new case management system called Odyssey.

For another finding, which determined that the court wasn’t following the county’s cash handling policy when it came to reporting cash overages or shortages to the county finance department, Bordeaux said the court has already adopted the policy changes that auditors suggested, and that things should improve further once a new cashier is hired.

“One thing we asked for in this (2017-2018) budget is a central cashier, and that’s what we’ve gotten,” he said. “That’ll be hopefully faster and more secure. That is one of the ways in which we are seeking to just improve money flow and money handling. … I’m thrilled with the progress we’re making, and really the whole office is trying to come together to make it better for the public.”

Still, the judge said the recommendations in the internal audit won’t address one recently publicized financial failing at the court. The conditions that made it possible for former Probate Court Clerk Kim Birge to steal more than $750,000 that had been entrusted to the court before she was convicted in 2015 aren’t as easily improved, Bordeaux said.

“The difficulties with Kim Birge, that’s not really cash handling,” he said. “What she did was totally off the books and not part of the (Probate Court) process. … What happened with the Kim Birge thefts is despicable, and that ain’t going to happen under my watch or the watch of … the chief clerk.”

 

Clerk of Superior Court

Meanwhile, in the office of the Superior Court Clerk, auditors reviewing the transfer of funds in the transition between administrations found generally adequate procedures and internal controls.

According to the audit report, the review was requested by Mosley when she took up the position, “to ensure accuracy of the transition of funds from the former Clerk, Daniel W. Massey.” At the end of Massey’s last term, the document says, the Clerk of Superior Court oversaw more than a dozen bank accounts totaling about $5 million. The clerk’s office also maintains and preserves records from Chatham County Superior Court.

As in the case of Probate Court, the internal audit department found that trends in the clerk’s office “were favorable of achieving objectives” and they gave the office a rating of a 3 plus. Auditors reported only two deficiencies: bank deposits weren’t regularly checked for accuracy and there was no separation of duties when it came to collecting large deposits.

The report says the office has already installed new accounting software to aid in addressing the findings and Mosley requested funding from the Chatham County Commission to reorganize her staff and achieve a better separation of responsibilities. Mosley added that the impending launch of the new Odyssey case management system in all of Chatham County’s judicial offices should be a game-changer when it comes to following financial policies.

“We are working on the audit from the end of last year to implement the findings so we can have better audit this year,” Mosley said. ”As far as ways to try and go back and look at the ways we did business and how we do business now and how we proposed to do business — come Aug. 1 we’ll change the way do business and that’s the whole five courts. We are hustling to get everything in (Odyssey) and make sure everything works right come Aug. 1.”

Like the clerk, the internal audit director said there is a great deal of potential in improving operations in the county court system with the new Odyssey program.

“(It) allows for a lot of good data handshaking, and new opportunities to improve those controls,” Alday said. “More and more, we’re getting used to getting rid of paper and manual transactions … We’re seeing a lot of opportunity there for them to have improvement.”

 

Other audits

• Auditors reviewing payroll at Chatham County Parks and Recreation from July 2014-2016 reported findings similar to those in an internal audit conducted at Chatham County Public Works earlier this year. The two departments were combined during the period reviewed by auditors, yielding similar results in parks and recreation to the audit in public works. The Savannah Morning News reported on the findings in Public Works in April.

• Auditors determined that identity and access management at the Chatham County Sheriff’s Department were adequate, appropriate and effective.

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