Audit finds overpayment to Gig Harbor municipal court judge, other problems

Gig Harbor’s municipal court judge may have to reimburse the city for thousands of dollars in payments the city made to lawyers who substituted for him when he was on vacation or sick leave.

According to a report from State Auditor Pat McCarthy, the city, contrary to its contract with Judge Michael Dunn, paid the fees of pro tem or temporary judges when Dunn was unavailable to perform his part-time job. The city’s contract with Dunn required that Dunn himself pay the substitute judges’ costs.

The court’s going rate for pro tem judges is $60 an hour. The auditor’s office said it identified invoices from substitute judges during 2015 and 2016 totaling $6,306 that the city paid while Dunn was absent from the court for personal reasons.

Gig Harbor City Administrator Ron Williams said the city is reviewing its books for the past several years to identify further pro tem judges’ fees it paid. Dunn has contracted to serve as the city’s part-time municipal court judge since 1999.

Dunn said he was unaware until the audit how the court was handling the substitute judge’s payments. A trusted bookkeeper at his private law practice handles bill payments, he said. He didn’t know the details of what bills the bookkeeper handled.

“If a bill came in, it was paid,” he said.

Dunn said he has returned more than $2,000 to the city, and he is willing to pay more if the accounting requires it.

The city pays Dunn, a Port Orchard lawyer, $4,485.16 monthly, or nearly $54,000 yearly, for his two-days a week stint on the municipal court bench. Under his contract, the only exception to the rule that he pay pro tem judges during his absence is when Dunn attends an annual judicial conference or when he is disqualified from hearing a case because of a conflict of interest.

The auditor’s finding on the issue of substitute judges’ pay was part of a newly released audit that gives the court substandard grades for its accounting of monetary payments and documentation for adjustments made to fines and fees. The audit report noted the court had not reconciled its bank account during a nine-month period and had been unable to produce supporting documentation for reconciliations that had been completed.

In a response to the audit’s findings, court administrator Stacy Colberg said the court was shorthanded because of a complete turnover in her staff and because of an increasing workload. New staff members had to be trained on procedures used in the court’s financial tracking system.

Colberg pointed to what she said was a six-day outage in the computer system the court uses to record receipts and fines.

The court’s status in the city governmental structure is ill-defined, complicating the question of who is accountable for the court’s smooth administration and functioning.

City officials told the auditor’s office that the court was a separate branch of government not under the city’s direct control. Williams said workers in the court are accountable to the judge, and the entire operation functions under the auspices of the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

The city, however, hires the judge and the court administrative personnel, and the City Council has budgetary control over the agency. Court workers, except for the judge, are regular city employees.

Dunn said the lines of authority need clarity.

The errors in paying the temporary judges, he said, apparently came about because the courts administrator, who took over her position quickly when the previous courts administrator left, was unfamiliar with the terms of his contract.

The administrator was working late into the night after two employees left to get the work done and to bring new employees up to speed, the judge said. Colberg, the administrator, makes $94,656 annually, the city said.

Colberg said she has arranged for court staffers to attend training to update them on financial procedures and to address the issues raised in the audit.

The city also hired an outside investigator to look into the pro tem payment discrepancies.

Seattle attorney Rebecca Dean, the investigator, concluded the wrongful payments weren’t intentional.

“I did not find information that indicated that Dunn or Colberg intentionally caused the city to pay for pro tem services that Dunn should have paid,” she wrote in a report to Williams.

The judge, she said, failed to tell Colberg about the pro tem payment terms in his contract.

“It is more likely than not that his failure was unintentional,” Dean said.

Dunn said he is concerned that the auditor’s report findings will become ammunition in an upcoming discussion with the council about whether the Gig Harbor court’s function should be combined with that of the Pierce County District Court in Tacoma.

That merger, said the judge, would create additional work for local police who would have to travel to Tacoma to participate in court hearings and to the public who would have to do the same.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663