PITTSBURGH – The propensity for Washington County Court of Common Pleas judges to allow criminal defendants to perform community service in lieu of paying fines and other penalties cost the state and county $1.56 million in recent years, a state audit revealed.
State Auditor General Timothy DeFoor released his findings Friday showing the loss of potential revenue from 2016 and 2019 – including $513,178 that could have been paid to the state for various victims services and police programs – but noted there was no evidence it was misappropriated or stolen.
The audit of the county’s Clerk of Courts Office reviewed the same four-year time period in which its former leader, Frank Scandale, stole more than $97,000 from the office, but DeFoor said his findings had nothing to do with the administration of the row office itself. Instead, he blamed the practice of allowing “alternative sentencing programs” for those convicted of crimes to perform community service or get credit for jail time rather than paying the fines, court costs, fees and other charges.
DeFoor said the ability for judges to waive those payments was “effectively short-changing taxpayers” of funds used for various state and county programs. The audit found 3,420 cases of adjustments in the county during the four-year period.
“This is significant because those funds paid by defendants support victims’ services, such as domestic violence programs, and training for law enforcement statewide,” DeFoor said during a news conference in Pittsburgh. “Now, me being a former law enforcement officer, I certainly understand the value and I know the value of alternative sentencing programs. However, these programs must operate within the law.”
The audit did not detect any instances of favoritism or criminality within the program, DeFoor said, but he thinks the community service option should only be reserved for those who do not have the money to pay.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with community service alternative sentencing,” DeFoor said. “That is pretty much reserved for those individuals who are indigent and can’t afford to pay in this situation. But there is also a process in which that is to take place, a hearing to determine somebody’s eligibility in that program, is to take place in front of a job. That process never took place and that process was ignored.”
Representatives for both President Judge John DiSalle and Court Administrator Patrick Grimm referred all questions about the audit to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which oversees the court system in the state. AOPC spokeswoman Stacey Witalec did not return a phone message Friday afternoon seeking comment on the audit’s findings.
DeFoor said his audit team did not speak to DiSalle or Senior Judge Katherine Emery, who was president judge of the courthouse during the audit period before she retired at the beginning of this year. However, the audit indicated the alternative sentencing options preceded Emery’s tenure as president judge when she assumed the position in 2015.
County Commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan, who watched a live stream video of the state auditor’s news conference, said the situation appears to be a difference in legal opinions over whether community service should be a viable option for many criminal defendants going through the legal systems.
“This is a disagreement between the (state) auditor general and the courts,” Irey Vaughan said.
Although the commissioners are not involved in the judicial process, she praised the county’s community service program and what it’s offered over the years.
“The community service program has provided countless hours to our municipalities and nonprofits,” Irey Vaughan said.
Meanwhile, DeFoor said his office’s inquiry confirmed the results of a separate audit performed by county Controller Michael Namie showing Scandale misappropriated about $97,000 in money from the office in 2018 and 2019. Scandale, a Democrat who lost re-election in November 2019 just after the money was reported missing, pleaded guilty last year to several charges and was ordered to pay $101,876 in restitution.
DeFoor praised the work of new Clerk of Courts Brenda Davis, the Republican who defeated Scandale, for implementing “stronger internal controls” in an effort to prevent similar thefts from happening in the future. In an emailed statement sent shortly after the news conference, Davis stressed that the audit covered the time period before she took office.
“I run my office by the statutes, rules and regulations as governed by the state of Pennsylvania,” Davis said.
DeFoor said it’s “possible” the alternative sentencing program and lower collection figures has continued under Davis, but he did not blame her or the office.
“This lack of collections is not the fault of the Clerk of Courts, but the ongoing practice is preventing the Clerk of Courts from remitting funds owed to the state,” he said.