Audit shows Phillips’ errors

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 5, 2009

The latest Covington County Probate Judge’s Office audit revealed at least eight findings against the business practices of former probate judge Sherrie Phillips that included the misuse of funds and improper handling of estate cases.

Released Friday, the audit covers Oct. 1, 2006, through June 18, 2008 — five days after Phillips was indicted by a Covington County grand jury for stealing more than $1.8 million from the estate of Cary Douglas Piper. She has since been found guilty of first-degree theft of property and theft by deception and for using her position for personal gain. She is now serving a three-year prison term in the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Of the findings, the largest centered around the handling of probate court cases and highlighted that:

five cases tested were never assigned a case number.

five cases tested had conservators appointed without sufficient bonds as prescribed by state law. Also, on two cases, bonds for conservators were found to be insufficient. In addition for six other cases, copies of the current conservator bonds were not on file.

the estate inventory for one case was not filed timely as required by state law.

12 of the test cases did not have a timely accounting on file, as required every three years by state law.

in one case, the payment of $1.8 million in unclaimed funds was not made to the state as required by law; instead those funds were put into Phillips’ personal account.

Other current findings related to:

an absence of internal controls in receipting and depositing checks. It specifically cited a $3,650 check tied to the Piper case and checks received from “certain businesses.”

the failure to apply correct sales tax rates used when processing boat and motor vehicle transactions.

the failure to pay invoices timely. Two examples cited were a $5 late fee on a cell phone bill and a $69.28 late fee on a bank payment.

the failure to maintain sufficient documentation for expenditures paid from the special indexing fee fund, a fund designated for improving the indexing system or other equipment, maintenance and services for improving the office. It specifically cited a lack of documentation for 19 reimbursements for meals, one reimbursement for office supplies, airline tickets for two national conferences and hotel accommodations for a state conference.

the failure to properly report all fiduciary funds, also known as funds directly related to estates, trusts, conservatorships and guardianships, on hand and under the control of the probate judge.

entering into a contract for which she did not have legal authority to do so, specifically a cell phone contract.

an unallowable expenditure from the special indexing fee fund. A purchase of $56 funeral flowers was made with these monies. “This unallowable expenditure was reimbursed by (Phillips) when brought to her attention,” the audit stated.

Current Probate Judge Ben Bowden, who was appointed to the post by Gov. Bob Riley last November, said his office was made aware of the preliminary findings several months ago.

“There were a few ministerial or clerical changes we needed to make at that time, which we have already accomplished,” Bowden said. “The major findings of improper procedures or activity related to a prior administration, and those issues were either one-time occurrences or have been dealt with by the Courts.”

Bowden said his office appreciated “the diligence of the State Examiner’s Office and the work they do to help keep government honest and transparent. We look forward to our first audit and expect to be fully compliant with all applicable laws.”