Ascension court catches $1 million accounting error

An accounting error discovered last summer cost the Ascension Parish Court $1.173 million over seven years, but it’s been corrected and a plan put into place for the court to recover the lost funds.

The error might boil down to two financial accounts that had very similar names: Parish Court Bench Warrant and Parish Government Bench Warrant Account. The name of the second one has since been changed.

“My court fund balance was dropping, and I couldn’t think of a reason why,” said Ascension Parish Court Judge Marilyn Lambert.

One of her staff members discovered the error. When it was time for the Parish Court’s annual audit last year, as required by law, Lambert informed the auditor of the court’s summertime discovery.

“It was just human error. We worked it all out,” Lambert said.

At the heart of the funds in question is a $100 bench warrant fine that people pay in Parish Court when they miss their court date and must reschedule.

Sixty dollars of each of those fines collected go to the judicial expense fund of Parish Court.

But, at some point in 2006, the $60 collected from each fine began to go, instead, to the judicial expense fund of the 23rd Judicial District Court.

Ascension Parish Court, created in 1976 by the state Legislature, handles civil, juvenile, and misdemeanor criminal and traffic matters for the parish and its municipalities.

It’s one of two such courts in the state, the other being in Jefferson Parish. Other jurisdictions in the state have city courts.

The 23rd Judicial District Court serves the three parishes of Ascension, Assumption and St. James, and handles felonies, family, juvenile and civil matters.

The Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office collects the fines for the courts.

“There is no question it was my business office that directed that money to the other judges’ account,” said Sheriff Jeff Wiley.

“We were understandably concerned” when the office learned about the error, he said.

Wiley said there are two accounts for the bench warrant funds.

The one for Parish Court is called the Parish Court Bench Warrant account.

The one for the 23rd Judicial District Court used to be called by a similar name, the Parish Government Bench Warrant Account.

That account has since been renamed the Judicial Felony Expense Bench Warrant account, Wiley said.

Every dollar of the bench warrant monies was accounted for, said Wiley, and was still in the funds of a court that had concurrent jurisdiction as Parish Court.

“It didn’t leave the system at all,” he said.

“No one really knew it was happening,” said Judge Guy Holdridge with the 23rd Judicial District. “It was more of an accounting issue than anything else.”

The solution for Parish Court to recoup the $1.173 million, which represents about $14,000 per month over the seven years the error went undetected, is that the court will stop a monthly payment of about $7,500 it had been making to the 23rd Judicial District Court to help cover the cost of a variety of items, including a portion of the pay of a receptionist who works for both courts.

“It was the most painless way to do it,” Lambert said.

It will take about 13 years for the full amount to be restored to Parish Court.

“A side issue is that we have that many people, about 150 people missing court a month, who come in to pay $100 (for the bench warrant fine) and reschedule court,” Wiley said.

“We have so many people that miss court it has become an economic engine for some of the agencies,” he said.