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Two Western North Carolina counties recently made procedural changes at their Clerk of Courts offices in response to critical reports from the office of State Auditor Beth Wood.

The reports, which were made public this month and include the clerks’ responses, identified similar problems in Avery and Swain counties. In the latter case, the clerk’s office has also been dealing with fallout from embezzlement charges against a former employee.

In both cases, the audits found insufficient safeguards for handling money, which created opportunities for misappropriation, though the audit said no instances of wrongdoing were uncovered. But the audit noted that the nature of the problems would have allowed for fraud that might have been difficult to detect.

The audits also said neither county was doing enough to encourage timely inventories of estates or collection of fees on estates.

Clerks respond

In the case of Swain County, auditors additionally criticized delays in the processing of fees from the magistrate’s office, which could have led to money being lost or stolen.

The clerks in both counties wrote that they have made adjustments in line with auditors’ recommendations.

The clerks altered the job duties for several employees or limited their access to funds and records to ensure that appropriate checks will be in place going forward. Other employees were assigned additional duties, including reviewing transactions to ensure that everything is being done properly.

Swain County Clerk Hester Sitton said in her response that one former clerk’s office employee had been granted access to a new computer data system without her knowledge, a situation that she has since corrected.

Sitton told Carolina Public Press on Friday, Oct. 10, that the employee in question was her former assistant clerk, Rita Robinson Walls, who was indicted in March and is awaiting trial on multiple charges of embezzling during spring 2014, prior to the audit.

Apparently a third party used an outdated employee list to set up access to the digital system.

But Sitton said the charges against Walls are totally unrelated and stem from allegations of activity that would predate the audit. Walls ceased employment with the clerk’s office in May 2014, and the audit only began looking at the office in July 2014.

That Walls was the former employee who had inappropriate access, Sitton deemed coincidental. She said there is no evidence that Walls ever knew she had access to the new system.

Sitton said she could not comment directly on the charges Walls is facing.

The State Auditor’s office conducts periodic reviews of various local governments throughout the state on a revolving basis. Both of these audits were part of that regularly scheduled process and not sparked by any complaints or external events, according to Bill Holmes, director of external affairs for the State Auditor’s office.

Both counties also implemented new procedures to ensure timely and well-documented handling of funds. The magistrates in Swain County were given new guidance on how to process fees daily.

Small county challenges

Sitton noted in her response to the audit that implementing some of these procedures is more challenging in a small county.

“Unlike larger counties where The Clerk of Court is mostly a supervisory position, I am a working clerk,” she wrote.

“I strive to comply with all statutes in a timely manner. Due to an increase in court dates for both district and superior court and a very limited staff (5 persons), often I must help in the front office. There are times we have two courts going at the same time.

“Since the state audit I have attempted to collect the required Inventory fees and send notices of filings that are due because the elected clerk isn’t just an administrator as is the case in many larger counties.”

The audit period for both counties began in July 1, 2014, and ended March 31 in Swain County and April 30 in Avery County.

Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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