A debate is playing out in Columbus over whether judges are responsible for explaining their expenses to an auditor or whether such explanations are just an opportunity to be second-guessed.
That debate revolves around Amended Substitute House Bill 166, as proposed by Ohio House Rep. William Seitz, R-Cincinnati, which would remove language requiring judges to submit evidentiary evidence when presenting bills to an auditor.
The issue arose last year when Geauga County Auditor Charles Walder began questioning submittals by Geauga County Juvenile and Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell. To date, according to Judge Grendell’s Court Administrator Kimberly Laurie, Mr. Walder has “delayed, denied, or outright voided” more than 60 such bills. “And these numbers tick up each week,” Ms. Laurie said.
Mr. Walder has made false accusations, she said, and is continuing to do so.
“Mr. Walder is again making false accusations now about the court’s expenditure to the legislature in Columbus, and to representatives of the County Auditors Association of Ohio,” Ms. Laurie wrote. “The truth is simple: the court expends funds in a completely legal, transparent and responsible manner, submitting evidentiary matter such as invoices as required by law, and consistent with the appropriations approved by the county commissioners.”
In opposing the proposed legislation, Mr. Walder was joined by Geauga County Treasurer Christopher Hitchcock in a letter to the Ohio Senate Finance Committee, which opened hearings on the proposed amendment.
“This proposed amendment attempts to address a problem that does not exist,” the county officials wrote of the amendment. “The current (Ohio Revised Code) ORC 319.16 was thoughtfully crafted to create one level – county auditors’ verification of county expenditure – in a series of safeguards protecting public funds. ORC 319.16 does not hamper courts’ operations, but simply requires all county officials, agencies, and departments to provide basic documentation of their payments using county funds. Basic accountability for expenditures is something that the public has come to expect at all levels of government.
“Unfortunately, one judge in one county wants to spend county money but does not want to share receipts or vendor invoices justifying the expenditure. To keep spending public money while hiding what he spends it on, that one judge got his legislative friend to propose this amendment. Not surprisingly, the amendment would radically expand all judges’ powers to spend public funds without review. Indeed, its vague and sweeping language is an attempt to eliminate any and all verification of judges’ use of county funds. In effect, this amendment would turn court orders into blank checks for limitless spending.”
Alan Harold, Stark County auditor and president of the County Auditors’ Association of Ohio, testified before the senate committee, stating similar sentiments.
“The amendment would provide for local judges to submit a court order for the payment of bills, rather than any other evidentiary material, as has been the law since at least 1936,” Mr. Harold said. “This a major change to law and public policy that is of utmost concern to county auditors. And make no mistake, this is a local problem, not one that affects me or 86 of my fellow county auditors.”
Mr. Harold said without such reviews of bills a dangerous precedent would be set. “This amendment arises from a local dispute that is not a problem elsewhere in our state.” Allowing this amendment to carry forward will erode the public’s trust, which we value so dearly and work diligently every day to maintain. Its inclusion sets a dangerous precedent that undermines the fiduciary responsibility of the county auditor to protect taxpayer dollars by ensuring that expenditures are appropriate and it will open the door for additional entities to request similar exception to providing evidentiary material.”
Kate Jacob, chief compliance officer with the Geauga County Auditor, said the ongoing issues with the court are exclusive to the court and that other county offices all provide proper evidentiary materials with their bills.
In a March 21 email from Judge Grendell to Rep. Seitz, requesting possible legislation, the judge detailed his concerns regarding the auditor’s authority and whether it is an invitation to question judge’s spending.
“What is the purpose of giving evidentiary materials to the county auditor?” Judge Grendell asked. “He has no power to challenge the court’s spending decision. The court has to keep such evidentiary materials in support of its orders for purposes of a state audit, but giving this material to a local auditor only invites second guessing by a member of the executive branch.”
Ms. Jacob said her office cannot comment on the spread sheets provided by the court other than to say they are not in agreement.
Quoting the Ohio Attorney General David Yost, Ms. Jacob said “county auditors are the last line of defense.”
“Part of Ohio’s cumulative safeguards of public funds, the county auditor examines claims against the county treasury to ensure that all legal requirements have been met and the claim is proper in purpose and amount,” Ms. Jacob wrote. “Another official cannot substitute, or preempt, the auditor’s authority to determine the validity of a claim against the treasury.
“To verify expenditures, our office must receive sufficient evidentiary matter (receipts, invoices, contracts, etc.) The attorney general specifically addressed this issue in March of 2019, opining that a ‘county auditor enjoys the authority to require documentation which enables (it) … to ascertain the propriety of the payment of public funds from the county treasury, and the discretion to determine what constitutes evidentiary matter that is sufficient to support a requested expenditure.’”
She wrote that even with evidentiary matter provided, some claims submitted may fail legal accounting standards and need to be resubmitted correctly.
“Our county experienced nine years of embezzlement,” Ms. Jacob wrote. “We would hope that all Geauga County officials would willingly comply with legal requirements and basic accounting standards. Regardless, our office has a duty under the law to protect the Geauga County treasury. No one is above the law.”
Ms. Laurie provided more than 50 examples of outstanding and delayed, denied or voided expenditure requests, covering such items as office supplies, mileage, a judicial robe and attorney fees. In each case, purchase orders, invoices and court orders accompanied those requests, she said.
“As if this wasn’t enough, the county auditor’s office is now requiring additional explanations, even after the court provides a purchase order, invoice, court order and even images of the actual items purchased. It is completely unfair to accuse the court of withholding documentation when we have provided all of these things, yet the auditor still begs for more. If allowed to continue, this county auditor will continue to erroneously believe that he has unfettered authority to compromise the integrity and independence of the court, and create an impediment to the proper discharge of the court’s judicial functions by illegally delaying, denying or outright voiding the court’s legitimate public expenditures.”
Ms. Laurie said the dispute is also costing taxpayers.
“As a result of Mr. Walder’s continued improper and unprofessional gamesmanship, the county is incurring finance charge from one vendor, another vendor has sent their invoice to collections, another vendor has threatened to send their invoice to collections, and four vendors have filed a mandamus action against the Auditor Walder in the Supreme Court of Ohio, for which county taxpayers will have to foot the bill,” she wrote.
She said it could also affect the county’s credit rating and is threatening the court’s relationship with its vendors.
“Auditor Walder is playing political games at the expense of Geauga County taxpayers,” Ms. Laurie wrote. “Mr. Walder’s claims against the court, which are now being foolishly mimicked by Treasurer Hitchcock, are flat out slanderous and have been disproven on multiple fronts.”