Court clerk taking steps to prevent errors

Sarona Irvin

Shenandoah County’s new circuit court clerk is taking steps to prevent accounting errors after the office received another negative audit.

The Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts report of its audit of the office for the period from July 1, 2014, to Sept. 15, 2015, cites “matters involving internal control and its operation that has led or could lead to loss of revenues, assets, or otherwise compromise the Clerk’s fiscal accountability.”

The report cited the former Clerk Denise Estep as failing to monitor and disburse restitution and other liabilities. Specifically, Estep held on to liabilities for longer than was appropriate when she should have researched and disbursed the money to the necessary recipients. The office had been cited in previous audits for the failure.

The auditor also found that the court overcharged defendants for attorneys’ fees or other costs in about a dozen cases out of 30 examined.

Clerk Sarona Irvin took over the office Jan. 1 after being elected Nov. 3. Irvin’s Republican Party opponent, David George, used previous negative audits of the office as ammunition against the longtime chief deputy who served under Clerk Denise Estep. Irvin cited a lack of staff as a reason for the audit results.

The Board of Supervisors denied Estep’s repeated requests in 2014 and 2015 to allow her to use money in her office budget to keep a part-time worker on staff. Irvin says she is now taking steps to fix the problem. Also, County Administrator Mary T. Price’s proposed fiscal 2017 budget includes the clerk’s request to move office funds to cover salaries for two new part-time workers.

Statistics show the office lacks enough employees to handle the increasing workload, Irvin said Wednesday. The clerk took steps shortly after taking office to address problems cited in the report. The new account technician whittled down the amount of restitution owed to victims in about six weeks by disbursing funds to the necessary recipients, Irvin noted.

“So that clearly shows that I’m moving forward on getting those moneys that needed to be paid out paid out,” Irvin said.

The clerk said she expects the addition of two more employees to help rectify and prevent problems from recurring. One of the part-time workers is handling the high influx of concealed firearms permits, among other duties. The other part-time worker will help with filing criminal case orders and indexing, Irvin said.

“So, yes, I do think it’s gonna make a big difference,” Irvin said.

Irvin said the new technician can focus solely on the accounting side of the office – a job she had in addition to other duties as chief deputy clerk.

“It was virtually just impossible to juggle it all,” Irvin said.

The clerk said she hopes the added staff and refocused duties help the office receive positive audits. Irvin said she bore the responsibility for the negative audits that Estep received.

Irvin outlines her efforts to fix the errors in a Feb. 29 letter of corrective action to Martha Mavredes, auditor of public accounts.

In reference to the issue of monitoring and disbursing liabilities, Irvin states in the letter that she was “responsible for the accounting matters in our court. However, as Chief Deputy, I was needed in many other areas in our understaffed office. With my election I have hired and am training an accounting technician to focus solely on the daily financial obligations of our court.”

The new employee started Jan. 19 and began working to distribute restitution, bonds and refunds, Irvin states. The technician reduced the restitution due from $97,300 in 143 criminal cases as of Jan. 14 to $26,270 in 34 cases by Feb. 25, the clerk adds. Irvin states that she intends to review and correct the errors as necessary and to monitor the deputy clerks’ work in the future. Irvin states she plans to train deputy clerks who assess criminal costs to ensure the proper and timely assessment of these amounts.

The audit also found that Estep and her staff did not properly bill and collect court costs, resulting in a loss of revenue to the commonwealth and the county, and did not calculate due dates as ordered. In 11 of 30 cases tested, auditors found that defendants were overcharged $2,535 for attorney fees and $125 in court costs while other defendants were not billed for $180 in attorney fees.

“All I can say with that is I wasn’t the one really working with those and so it wasn’t me and I think what I stated in my corrective action plan is that I’m training my staff as well as myself to know what the proper codes and fees are and we’ll do our best to assess them,” Irvin said.

The audit also found that:
• The former clerk did not submit claims to the Virginia Department of Taxation for tax refund set‐off for delinquent court costs and fines totaling $1,856, resulting in a loss of revenue to the commonwealth and the county. Irvin explained that the money would have come from a defendant’s lottery winnings, not a refund set-off, that the office might take to satisfy a debt. Irvin blamed herself for not submitting the claim within the time allowed, recalling that she had trouble logging into the system. Irvin said she’s training the technician on how to handle claims.

• The former clerk did not use information in the Local Inmate Data System to determine if a defendant needs to have a DNA sample taken, the cost of which the defendant must pay unless a sample already has been taken. Irvin has inquired about access privileges to the system.

• The former clerk and her staff did not promptly post interest to trust fund accounts. In two of five cases tested, interest had not been recorded in the clerk’s financial system in almost a year. The new accounting technician is being trained to post interest on a regular basis, Irvin states.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com