Auditor Mike Harmon released a scathing report on the practices of the administrative branch of the Kentucky courts on Thursday, that found a lack of oversight of executives and elected officials in the agency.
According to the report, the lack of oversight spread to the members of the highest court in Kentucky. In all, five current and former Supreme Court justices were referenced in the report for questionable practices. The report did not identify them by name, but the auditor’s office later identified the justices they referenced.
The report included a recommendation that the Administrative Office of the Courts hold elected officials accountable if they break policy, but the AOC pushed back, saying that ultimately it’s the voters who hold elected officials accountable.
“The role of the AOC is to develop and recommend policy measures to the Supreme Court for adoption as Rules of Administrative Procedure and to execute Rules of Administrative Procedure and other policies and programs adopted by the Supreme Court,” Laurie Dudgeon, the executive director of the AOC, said in her response to the audit. “The AOC agrees that any policies developed by the Supreme Court should be enforced uniformly and consistently. Ultimately, elected officials are accountable to the voters and to the appropriate disciplinary bodies.”
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Here are the current and former Supreme Court Justices referenced in the report:
Justice Samuel T. Wright
The largest allegations of ethically questionable activity largely focused on Justice Wright and the decision to lease a property owned by his sons at triple the cost of the other bid.
In 2016, shortly after he was elected to the Supreme Court, Wright submitted a request to rent property in Whitesburg. The AOC advertised a bid for the office space in 2015 and came back with two responses: one from a property that used to be the post office and one from a property owned by Wright’s two sons.
In a memo dated January 14, 2016, AOC facilities staff spelled out the difference between the two properties. The first property, owned by his sons, would cost $59,912.76 per year, included janitorial services and would require upgrades to comply with the American Disabilities Act. The second property, which was larger, would cost $21,000.00. Janitorial services were not included.
The memo requested that the AOC lease the more expensive space but did not cite a reason why.
“Based on the limited information in the above memo, there is no justification for accepting the higher-cost space,” the audit found. “The criteria mentioned in the above memo does not provide sufficient information to compare the spaces for the criteria mentioned..”
On April 13, 2016, Dudgeon approved a lease for the more expensive property to start in October 2016.
In response to the audit, Dudgeon acknowledged that there wasn’t proper documentation, but defended the lease.
“While the AOC acknowledges that there was a lack of documentation in the lease file, the other proposed property was not suitable due to structural problems, persistent roof leaks and an inadequate HVAC system,” Dudgeon said. “The AOC’s decision on office space depends largely on what is available in that market and sometimes elected officials live in an area with very limited real estate options.”
Dudgeon also said the lease was finalized for $44,788.40 per year, which is twice the amount of the other offer.
It wasn’t the only time Wright was mentioned in the report. The Supreme Court Justices have access to state cars in order to use for travel related to their work on the court.
Wright took out a car on March 8, 2016. In July of that year, he brought the car back in and traded with Dudgeon. Wright never reported the mileage on the car for the more than four months it was in his possession, a fact that the auditor’s office has referred to the IRS and Kentucky Revenue Department.
Between July 25, 2016, and December 31, 2017, Wright did not submit mileage reports for the vehicles he was driving. When the Auditor’s office requested the information, he was able to provide mileage information to the tenth of the mile.
Chief Justice John Minton
Minton is mentioned throughout the report largely due to his role as the person at the highest command of the court system.
Since Minton is the Chief Justice of the Court, it makes him the highest ranking judge in the state. Along with that title, the report found that he has a responsibility to set the policies for the court system.
The report found that Minton chose instead to share the responsibility with all of the members of the Supreme Court and allowed them to vote on policy issues. When the auditor recommended that those meetings should be open to the public, the AOC pushed back.
The report also found that he had not set clear policy for the use of company credit cards, which led to a lack of scrutiny over purchases made by Minton, Dudgeon and Minton’s chief of staff.
While Minton reimbursed several expenses he made on the card, he also made purchases that the audit found questionable like spending more than $1,000 on a justice’s retirement party.
Minton’s wife was also mentioned in the report. At the request of Susan Page Minton, Dudgeon had a staffer spend $410.20 on personalized mint julep cups for members of the State Justice Institute Board.
Justice Bill Cunningham
The audit raised questions over how much the AOC should be reimbursing Cunningham for his travel expenses.
Cunningham was the only Supreme Court Justice who submitted the lease for his residence in Frankfort to the AOC, which showed that he was paying $800 per month rent. He spent 91 days in Frankfort in 2015 and 94 days in Frankfort in 2016, and received a daily per diem of $91, according to the letter.
In his letter to the AOC, Cunningham said he was receiving a per diem less than the amount that he was paying for the days he spent in Frankfort. Cunningham took the number of days he spent in Frankfort and divided it by his monthly rent to figure out that it cost him $103.90 per day on average.
But the auditor’s office did the calculation differently. It calculated that an $800 a month rent averages out to $26.30 a day. Because that’s the daily rent of the private residence for Cunningham, the auditors office argued that the state should pay the lower amount. They calculated that paying the lower amount would save the AOC more than $5,000 per year.
The AOC said they disagreed with the Auditor’s finding on Cunningham’s rental.
“We disagree with the auditor’s finding on this and feel like the characterization of Justice Cunningham’s reimbursement was misleading,” said Leigh Anne Hiatt, the spokeswoman for the AOC. “The Auditor spent significant time and energy comparing a hypothetical scenario which is not currently under consideration by the Supreme Court and which was never adopted by the Supreme Court, with actual reimbursements made. The AOC has confirmed with a tax attorney that its practice of paying the federal per diem is appropriate.”
Former Justice Mary Noble
Along with Wright, the audit raised questions about how the AOC obtained office space for Noble.
Noble sent an email to the AOC about her preferred office space, an office that would have cost $18 per square foot.
But the audit found records that the office’s bid was later amended to cost $22.54, which increased the cost by $12,349 a year. The audit pointed to the change in cost as another example of record keeping issues in the AOC because there was no documented justification for why the bid increased.
Facilities employees at the AOC said the bid was increased in order to pay for an expansion of the office. But the build out allowance was not included in the company’s second and final bid for the property. Instead, they requested a build out expense of $45 per square foot.
There were no records of other bids for her office space.
Noble also purchased furniture in a private sale from the AOC.
Former Justice Will Scott
Scott was the Supreme Court Justice referenced in the report for purchasing a surplus vehicle in a private sale from the AOC.