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April 30, 2012

A question of fair funding

Judges talk further about use of alcohol and drug fund money

JEFFERSONVILLE — The criticism handed down from the State Board of Accounts on how Clark County Superior Court No. 3 Judge Steve Fleece had spent money out of the Alcohol and Drug Services Fund was outlined in a recent audit report.

But Fleece said part of his rationale for the expenditures was largely related to a lack of funds in other county offices, a sudden influx of money into the court and the desire to support county operations.

Political posturing?

Fleece said a lot of the money expended the last year he served as Clark Superior Court No. 3 Judge was a result of requests from other entities saying they were out of money. He explained the county courts and the Clark County Council had a three-year legal fight over the use of Probationary User Fee fund, where Fleece said the courts were strictly limiting the use of the funds.

Following a ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court in favor of the Clark County Courts, he said the state encouraged the courts to work with the county council in being good stewards of the funding they were receiving.

“There was a conscious effort to improve our relationship with the county council by being flexible in the use of funds where I thought I could be flexible, and I thought there was more room for flexibility with alcohol and drug fees than there was with Probation User Fees,” Fleece said. “Instead of fighting for the money to be used for rigidly defined purposes, I’m trying to think how can I be a good guy to the county council and taking some money and using it for broad purposes. And that was the mindset I was into at the end of my administration.”

He added that before the county captured the fees — which formerly included $18 to $50 fines on all moving violations — the courts were having a hard time covering their expenses.

“We went from near starvation in that program to all of the sudden that program was a major source of revenue,” he said.

But along with raising flags with the State Board of Accounts, Fleece’s use of the funds and the subsequent citations were not a surprise to other judges.

“Steve Fleece does not speak for all of us judges,” said Clark County Circuit Court No. 1 Judge Dan Moore. “After the 2010 [audit] report came out, none of those findings were shocks. I think the statute’s crystal clear.”

Moore also offered his own response to the payments made by Fleece, specifically during his last year on the bench.

“A judge’s job is to decide cases, not to handle nearly $1 million in cash for some purposes outside of the enabling statute,” he wrote in an official statement. “Thus it is not surprising that a legitimate inquiry is made by auditors and others to question former practices concerning fringe benefits, undocumented take-home cars or cell phones.”

Fleece described his reason for paying for cell phones for 24 county employees out of the alcohol and drug services fund was because workers had not received raises for several years. In addition, county employees had to pay more for their medical benefits, and while he had sufficient money to give raises, it was not available for all of the people that work in the courts.

“If I couldn’t give a raise, I gave a perk,” he said.

Moore cited that payments out of the fund for perks will not continue as the courts have adopted a new control system with the unified courts.

“We now have a new structure in place that should provide safeguards about that fund’s future uses,” he wrote.

Fleece again touched on why the previous payments out of the fund had been allowed to go on so long, and were not brought to light until two years after he had retired.

“In tone and substance, this audit appears to me to be politically inspired hatchet job,” he wrote. “I smell an old familiar skunk who would readily destroy a legitimate local governmental revenue source if he could not control it himself or profit by it.”

Fleece did not name who may be behind the “political attack.”

Moore offered a different opinion, and said the amount of spending in 2008 from the fund may have tipped off the State Board of Accounts.

“As to why auditors raised questions now, the answer might lie within the question itself relative to 2008 and subsequent years of expenditures,” he wrote. “Was there ever other times when nearly $1 million was spent out of that fund for external purposes or donations?

“One could surmise that the massive expenditures of 2008 and after were possibly attention-getters in the government auditing offices.”

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