The case centers on a judicial process that happens all the time but rarely receives attention: the delivery — or “serving” — of court papers. Until last month, Saunders worked behind a glassed-off counter in a basement office at the Montgomery County Circuit Courthouse. Attorneys and others go to the window to request that sheriff’s deputies deliver legal documents to parties involved in divorce proceedings, lawsuits and other matters. The delivery comes with a $40 processing fee.
On Friday, officials charged Saunders with running what they termed a brazen scheme to divert $4,280 worth of fees into her pocket. Her scam, they say, worked like this: When people who were not lawyers came to Saunders’s window, she would tell them that there was a better way to get their court papers delivered. Then she would come into the lobby and quietly explain that the sheriff’s office was so backed up with requests that the court papers would be delivered too late. She’d say she ran a company called Eagle Eye J Process Servers that, for a higher price — $80 to $100 — would get the documents delivered on time. Eagle Eye then served the papers. It happened at least 107 times in more than four years, officials said.
Through her attorney, Saunders offered a different explanation.
She said that she had been instructed by superiors to tell people at the counter that there was a three- to four-week backlog and that if they needed the papers served within a day or two, they should contact one of the private process server firms that work in the area. When a person would ask Saunders whether she knew of such firms, she told them she ran one and gave them her private business card, her attorney said.
Saunders delivered the legal papers on her own time, Shalleck said. He said no funds were diverted from the Sheriff’s Office, since the money would have gone to a private firm anyway. “That’s why she feels so upset about these allegations,” Shalleck said. “She was providing a service that the Sheriff’s Office couldn’t provide. If it wasn’t her getting the fee, it would have been another private process server getting the fee.”
In charging documents, officials said Saunders violated personnel regulations and Sheriff’s Office policy by engaging in a private business that conflicted with her office duties. But Shalleck said there was not a conflict — because of the speed with which she could deliver the documents — and that Saunders thought certain regulations were not as tight for her because she was a civilian employee, not a sworn deputy.
“That’s something they can raise at trial,” said Montgomery Sheriff Darren Popkin, whose office initiated the investigation into Saunders’s activities. “All our employees should abide by the highest ethical standards.”
The sheriff took strong exception to the claim that there was a three- to four-week backlog. Popkin said that 80 percent of court papers get delivered on time by his deputies. In the other cases, delays are typically because the deputies have been given an incorrect address, the target for the papers has moved, or the target is not answering his or her door in an attempt to duck the process.