Probate Court audit reveals money oversight issues

(WMC-TV) - Shelby County Probate Court is the subject of the county's most recent internal audit.

The scathing report revealed the court is suffering from a pervasive lack of money oversight, including losing track of funds, unlocked cash drawers and unsealed confidential records.

The court is charged with the task of distributing assets to people who can't manage their own estate - be they deceased, senior citizens or children.  It was particularly daunting when internal auditors found a list of oversight problems at high risk for loss or misappropriation of court funds.

Paul Boyd became clerk last September and is now trying to clean up the mess.

"We're doing what we're supposed to do and I have no fear of anything," said Boyd.

Auditors did not accuse Boyd or anyone in his office of any wrongdoing, but they have serious changes in store, including account reconciliation.

In one case the audit found a $128,000 difference between the balance in one investment account and the balance the court had on record.  The audit says the court also lost track of money in some of their 635 accounts, and they did not keep up with interest earned on some of their $21 million in holdings.

"Every year, we're going to make a call right before the end of the year and make sure we have statements from all 600-plus accounts," said Boyd.

Auditors also uncovered only four percent of the checks the court paid out had the clerk's signature and the charge and cash receipts drawer had no lock.

Boyd said he is now signing the checks, and the cash box never had more than $150 because they work mostly with checks.

"Previous to the audit, we just had a shoe box that we had in the desk drawer," said Boyd.  "The auditors came and said, 'this is not acceptable,' so we went and bought a cash box with a lock."

The audit also found the court system had access weaknesses.  Former administrators could still log in to the computer system and sealed cases and mental health records were left unattended at times.

Boyd said the documents are now locked away and past administrators are now locked out.

"What we do is we make them inactive, which says they can't get anything, and then we change their passwords," he said.

He said his office is using computers from the 90s, but upgrading to computers that would better safeguard the court's money would cost a quarter of a million dollars in taxpayer funds.

Boyd hopes the County Commission will grant the upgrade, but in the meantime said he looks forward to the follow-up audit.

"We need the audit to come in to provide assurance to the public that nothing is stolen and everybody's doing what they're supposed to be doing," said Boyd.

Unlike the honest errors in Probate Court, clerks across the Mid-South have made news for dishonest behavior in recent months.  Shelby County Chancery Court Clerk Brandon Gunn pleaded guilty to stealing court funds in excess of $1 million.  It is still unclear how the money will be recouped.

Germantown Municipal Court deputy clerk Janet Donnell confessed to theft of city funds, but Germantown will not say how much she stole.  Auditors in Germantown are going through the records to get a better handle of the losses there.

General Sessions Court Clerk Otis Jackson is suing the judges who removed him, after he was indicted for allegedly coercing staff members to contribute to his re-election campaign.

To read the Shelby County Probate Court audit, click here.

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