Bookkeeping at D.C. Superior Court is so inexact that cash flow goes undocumented, important financial accounts go unexamined and bank balances do not always add up, federal auditors declared yesterday.
Court workers could not properly account for the funds in nine of the court's 18 bank accounts in 1998, the General Accounting Office announced in a report highly critical of Superior Court's financial management structure and practices.
Well into 1999, the GAO reported, the court had trouble accounting for funds in three accounts. As of July, the child support account--source of 28,000 checks and $4 million in payments each month--had not been reconciled in 14 months.
"It shows there has been a significant amount of mismanagement and shell games in the accounting of the court," said John Albaugh, chief of staff to Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District. "The credibility of the court is not exactly good right now."
A GAO report in September found the court's leaders budgeted poorly, ignored federal warnings and illegally overspent their 1998 budget by $4.6 million. Rather than live within its budget, GAO executive Gloria L. Jarmon wrote, the court kept spending until it was deep in the red.
Court Executive Ulysses B. Hammond, under fire from several directions, announced this month that he will leave his $136,700 job Feb. 18, after he finishes his 10th year and qualifies for a pension. John F. Schultheis, the court's chief financial officer, retired abruptly in July, saying he was weary of a "very stressful situation."
Chief Judge Eugene N. Hamilton did not return a call seeking comment yesterday. Court spokesman Margaret Summers said that Hammond was on leave and unreachable and that acting financial officer Anne B. Wicks was unavailable.
Meanwhile, the court leadership agreed to implement four GAO recommendations designed to create more rigorous financial accounting and controls. In a letter to GAO auditors, the court pledged to take greater care and to reconcile child support accounts by hand while awaiting a computer upgrade.
The GAO report "does confirm all of our concerns," said Howard A. Denis, counsel to the D.C. subcommittee. He added that the court's acknowledgment of failings and the promised improvements were "very positive." The report does not allege fraud.
Congress requested the GAO audit last year in light of intensifying complaints from Capitol Hill and federal agency staff that the court's financial numbers did not add up. In mid-1998, Superior Court ran out of money and fell millions of dollars in arrears in payments to lawyers for indigent District residents.
Hammond, along with the chief judges of Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals, said Congress had shortchanged them. But federal overseers who pressed for answers said the court leaders never were able to document the alleged shortfall.
The GAO analysis released yesterday was the product of an 11-month investigation. Auditors conducted interviews and studied ledgers and printouts, attempting to match financial transactions with bank statements and supporting documents. They said they often came up short.
Studying the court's bank accounts for September 1998, the last month of the budget year, the GAO discovered that nine of the 18 accounts did not balance. Only after the federal auditors pointed out the problem did court authorities reconcile six of the nine.
In July 1999, however, three accounts remained out of balance. One was the child support account. When the court switched to a new system in May 1998, supervisors stopped checking receipts and payments against bank records, the GAO said, leaving no way to show that "there were no duplicate payments or misappropriated funds."
Court officials told the GAO that 14 months after the new system went online, a software function was not working and the accounting staff had not yet received training. Yet the court did not retrieve other data from the same system that would allow workers to reconcile the accounts.
One anomaly stood out to auditors. Checks issued on two days in May 1998 do not appear in the check register, the GAO was told by a child support supervisor, who also said court accountants do not periodically review the system's numbers for accuracy.
In another financial area, court supervisors mixed funds in two accounts that remained unreconciled, the GAO concluded. One was an escrow fund that holds money for litigants in such matters as civil lawsuits and landlord-tenant disputes. The other was the fund that pays juror fees.
At one point, the juror account listed $465,000 as deposits-in-transit, signaling that the court was awaiting reimbursement from a federal agency. Yet the court had not requested reimbursement, said the GAO. Of the total, $146,000 of the total dated back to April 1998, but was not deposited until June 1999.
"D.C. court officials could not explain why they did not request reimbursement of these amounts . . . until after the fiscal year ended," wrote Jarmon. Regarding the mixed accounts, she added, "The problems continued into the summer of 1999."
The GAO also said the court erred when it created its administrative structure by not separating auditing responsibilities from daily and monthly financial duties. Auditors were, in effect, in a position to audit their own work, the GAO concluded.
Hammond announced in March that the roles would be redesigned. But as recently as July, the GAO said, the court's internal auditor had the primary responsibility for reviewing the monthly reconciliations of courthouse accounts.
Financial rigor matters, Jarmon wrote, because gaps in procedure increase the risk of mistakes and misspending. Loose practices also make it difficult to know how much money exists and where it is going. In 1998, she said, the court "did not have adequate controls and procedures in place."
"The court is unconcerned with the finer points of law on accounting. It will move money around as it needs rather than as the law requires," charged Colin Dunham, past president of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, after reading the report. "Congress is blamed by the court quite unfairly. The court made this situation for itself."