BY CLARA VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —
Retiring Accomack County Circuit Court Clerk Samuel Cooper is accepting the blame for a state audit of his office that showed “numerous deficiencies” in bookkeeping and billing totaling tens of thousands of dollars.
Cooper is retiring effective Dec. 31 after four decades in the elected position. An election for his replacement is Nov. 7.
The audit cited “numerous deficiencies involving internal control and its operation across multiple areas that have led or could lead to noncompliance with laws and regulations, the loss of assets or revenues, or otherwise compromise the Clerk’s fiscal accountability,” during the period from Jan. 1, 2022 to March 31, 2023.
Audit Director for Local Government and Judicial Systems at the state’s Auditor of Public Accounts office Laurie Hicks said is it “not uncommon” to have similar results in audits of circuit court clerks.
“What is unusual about the findings in the most current Accomack County Circuit Court audit report is the number of findings and the number of years several of the findings have been repeated,” she said.
Cooper in an interview Oct. 10 acknowledged the issues the audit cites and said he is in the process of correcting billing errors and reconciling accounts.
“I’m responsible for that which is and that which is not done. I take full responsibility for it,” he said.
“These issues that were cited in this most recent audit are probably 10 days away from being corrected because I cannot let the new person come in and have this issue,” he said.
“When they come in, these books are going to be right,” Cooper said of the next circuit court clerk.
In a letter to Cooper and Accomack County Board of Supervisors Chair Robert Crockett dated July 18, 2023, Staci Henshaw, Virginia’s auditor of public accounts, cited “matters involving internal control and its operation necessary to bring to management’s attention.”
Her report details those matters, including:
— Cooper did not submit claims to the Virginia Department of Taxation to collect unpaid court fines and costs totaling $32,759.
— Cooper and his staff did not correctly bill and collect court costs in 17 of 40 cases examined. In 12 cases, the clerk’s office did not charge defendants a total of $4,925 in court costs. In five cases, it overcharged defendants a total of $1,227 in court costs.
— Cooper failed to properly manage and report trust fund accounts, including depositing trust funds of $311,492 in a bank that is not a qualified depository, as defined by the Code of Virginia; not accurately posting interest in the financial accounting system to individual trust fund accounts; not investing five trust funds totaling $107,501 within 60 days of the initial court order as required by the Code of Virginia; and not filing an annual trust fund report with the court by the deadline for fiscal year 2022.
— Cooper had not established a procedure for ordering and obtaining DNA samples, which the Code of Virginia requires when defendants are convicted of felony charges and certain misdemeanors.
— Cooper failed to keep copies of two of nine voided receipts examined and to document the reason for the voided receipts.
— Cooper had not reconciled the operating account since 2014.
The Clerk of Circuit Court has over 800 duties, the report says. These range from serving as the keeper of court records, deeds, and marriage licenses to handling administrative matters for the court and acting as an authority to probate wills, grant administration of estates, and appoint guardians.
Cooper attributed the audit’s findings to focusing on other duties of his office.
“It’s because I did not give it proper attention,” he said.
“We have a lot of other processes going on in the office,” he said. “The day-to-day stuff — a lot of it is addressing the public’s needs. I’ve focused a lot of time on that.”
Hicks said the report was released last month, and Cooper noted the timing of the audit circulating coincides with the upcoming election.
“I understand the motivation for citing these things,” he said, “but I am not the candidate.”
Hicks said state auditors conduct turnover audits when a new circuit court clerk takes office and they plan to visit the Accomack office at the end of December or beginning of January, when they will review the findings in the most recent report with the new clerk and make recommendations.
“As a constitutional officer, the clerk is responsible for developing and implementing corrective action” for any remaining issues, she said.
— Audit reports can be found on the APA’s website at https://www.apa.virginia.gov/APA_Reports/Reports.aspx
— Visit https://www.apa.virginia.gov/reports/AccomackCoCC2023.pdf to read the most recent audit report on Accomack’s circuit court clerk.