Financial head of court leaves amid accusations Office of the Courts returns $2.4 million because of mismanagement

September 18, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The top financial officer for the state's circuit and appellate courts has left his job after accusations that his office did not properly handle $5 million in purchases.

The departure of Walter H. Sanders, director of fiscal operations for the state's Administrative Office of the Courts, comes after the agency had to return $2.4 million to the state's general fund because of mismanagement. The returned money means that equipment -- such as digital copiers and work stations -- requested by courthouses across the state may be late in arriving or may not come at all.

The budgeting problems may also increase tensions that erupted during the last legislative session as lawmakers heightened scrutiny over the judiciary budget.

George B. Riggin Jr., state court administrator, said Sanders did not fully understand the budget process. The office administers about $100 million to the clerks' offices in circuit courthouses across the state. It also pays the salaries and expenses of judges from the Circuit Court to the Court of Appeals.

"He [Sanders] didn't know any better," Riggin said in an interview earlier this week. "He just didn't realize the purchase orders had not been properly processed."

Riggin would not say if Sanders, who has worked in the $70,000 position for about 18 months, had resigned or been fired yesterday. Sanders' voice mail said he was out of the office yesterday. He could not be reached at his home.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, chief of the Court of Appeals, declined to comment yesterday on Sanders' departure.

Referring to the returned money, Bell said earlier in the week that he was taking steps to prevent a similar situation in the future. He would not be specific. "My concern is that it happened and it not happen again," he said.

Riggin would not directly link Sanders' departure and the returned money yesterday.

In interviews earlier this week, Riggin detailed the administrative foul-up that led to the return of such a large sum.

Riggin said that at least 30 purchase requests -- many with multiple items -- languished for as long as three months without being processed. The courts office also set aside -- or "encumbered" -- money for postage, which it was not supposed to do, Riggin said.

When the agency started to close its books for the fiscal year in July, the errors were discovered. Officials decided to return nearly half the $5 million allocated for the purchases and dip into money from the next year's budget to make up the difference. Some items, however, may not be bought. Riggin said the requests will be granted on a case-by-case basis.

He said he has put new procedures in place, including periodic reviews of the fiscal department.

Damage already might have been done, however. Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and chair of the House's subcommittee on Public Safety and Administration, said yesterday that he planned to hold a hearing to determine what exactly happened with the money. He also recommended an audit.

A budget analyst with the Office of Policy Analysis will look into the situation and make a report to members of the judiciary's budget committees, said director Warren Deschenaux.

Said Franchot: "This is a very serious example of fiscal mismanagement. They don't know what they are doing."

Sanders was hired by the office in April 1997. Officials have refused to release his resume, noting the confidentiality of personnel records. A press release issued when he was hired made no mention of any specific jobs he held before taking the job.

The release said Sanders had more than 20 years of "diversified senior level management experience. ..."

Pub Date: 9/18/98

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