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April 28, 2012

Judges respond to funding flak from state

Steven Fleece says his interpretation differs from SBOA's on spending

JEFFERSONVILLE — Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series on Clark County Alcohol and Drug Services funding. Read part two in Monday’s News and Tribune.

The spending habits of Clark County Superior Court No. 3 caught the attention of the State Board of Accounts in a recent report, which stated it improperly used funds from the Clark County Alcohol and Drug Services fund.

The court, which has been renamed Clark County Circuit Court No. 3, operated the fund for more than 20 years without being cited by the state. During that time, money collected through a fee of $18 to $50 on all moving violations in the county paid a variety of expenses, including sponsoring local Little Leagues, paying for new carpet for the Clark County Courts and paying for blacktop for the 4-H Fairgrounds.

The money spent — $2.5 million over a five-year period — came from the traffic tickets, but were not always related to cases where substance abuse had been a factor, according to the Indiana State Board of Accounts.

Agree to disagree

In a response to the State Board of Accounts, former Superior Court No. 3 Judge Steve Fleece, who was the steward of the funds from 1995 through 2008, defended his actions.

“The dispute boils down to a difference of opinion over what activities of local government and allied nonprofit institutions can be financed by Alcohol and Drug Services funds,” Fleece wrote in a response letter.

The State Board of Accounts contended that the proper uses for the Alcohol and Drug Fee Funds were limited to individuals that have “legal obligations due to alcohol and/or drug use.”

“I think the State Board of Accounts has gone off the theory if it’s not specifically authorized it’s forbidden,” Fleece said. “And I go on the theory that if it’s not specifically prohibited, then it’s allowable.”

He said in the response letter that Indiana Code allowed for the alcohol and drug program funds to be used for “accompanying services.” The accompanying services he used the funds for were often directly related to alcohol and drug programs.

“There are some where I’m just astounded that they would say they’re not related to drug and alcohol services, because I think they’re clearly and obviously related to alcohol and drug services,” Fleece said.

Examples of directly linked expenses that were questioned by the State Board of Accounts included payments the court made for the county’s prosecutor in the drug court or funding given to the area halfway houses. Fleece defended money used to pay expenses at Bliss House — a halfway house for women; Jerry’s House — a halfway house for men; and Childplace — a facility with residential accommodations for teenagers battling alcohol and drug addiction, which has treatment programs for individuals that may have multiple, but nonviolent drug-related convictions.

“In effect, [the halfway houses] are taking people we’d otherwise be expending tax money on in jail, and they’re not only housing them and feeding them at their expense with no subsidy from government, but they are saving the government the cost of incarceration,” he said.

However, Fleece agreed that there may have been expenses the alcohol and drug fund covered that were outside the scope of the what and how the money should have been used.

“There were some things there that I would say were outliers,” he said. “There were times, maybe in retrospect, maybe I should’ve said ‘no.’”

Fleece offered as an example a request made by the Clark County Building Authority to pay for carpeting for the second floor in the Clark County Government Building. The request by building authority was made because it did not have the money to pay to recarpet the area, and it turned to the court because of a glut of money.

“For something like that, maybe I was too easy a touch,” Fleece conceded. “[If] the public thinks they’re all like that, that’s completely untrue,” he added, referring to the expenses cited by the State Board of Accounts. “Those are the outliers that are questionable to reasonable minds. But things like paying for sheriff’s cars and other things like that to me — their definition of what is related to alcohol and drug services is just way too narrow.”

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