The administrator’s office of Colorado’s Judicial Department, an independent branch of government with a $600 million annual budget, was so lax and unregulated in how it managed that money that it raises questions about whether the department fostered “a culture of integrity, ethical values, and accountability,” a state audit released Monday found.
In an 81-page audit of the Supreme Court Administrator’s Office, which state auditors had never specifically looked into before Denver Post stories raised several flags, investigators found millions of dollars in spending and employee payouts that, at the minimum, degraded the public trust, according to the report.
“The results of this audit raise questions about whether the SCAO has acted in a manner that maintains public trust in the Judicial Department and demonstrates good stewardship of state funds,” legislative audit manager Vickie Heller said.
Officials, including retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan “Ben” Coats, under whose stewardship much of the findings occurred, told the legislature’s Legislative Audit Committee that the problems were being addressed.
“There doesn’t seem like there were many standards involved,” Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Denver Democrat, told Coats and SCAO administrator Steven Vasconcellos. “Someone is not watching and being mindful of what needs to be done.”
Since 2017, the administrators of the department that houses Colorado’s court system approved sole-source contracts worth millions of dollars with little oversight, gave thousands of hours of administrative leave without recording a reason for the leave, and paid hundreds of hours of family medical leave without being able to prove why, auditors found.
Additionally, SCAO employees often couldn’t find paperwork to prove the expenditures were valid because at least two officials who resigned before the audit began had used their personal laptops at work and took it all with them when they left.
One contract in particular, a $2.5 million sole-source deal to the department’s former chief of staff The Post described in July 2019, raised so many flags that auditors cited it in several places among key problems they identified throughout the office. That contract was awarded to Mindy Masias just days after she resigned in March 2019.
Auditors said the five-year deal, which was approved for a company Masias created while still employed with the office “degrades the public trust” in what should have been a fair and impartial process, and “gives the appearance of impropriety and appears to be a violation of the Judicial Code of Conduct.”
State audits never name the individuals or businesses about whom findings are made.
The contract was canceled shortly after The Post stories ran. At least three administrators resigned as a result of the paper’s investigation, but Coats listed several more to the committee who since departed. He did not say the reasons.
One of those to resign was former administrator Christopher Ryan. He declined to comment about the audit findings when reached Monday.
Coats asked Auditor Dianne Ray to initiate the audit shortly after a 23-line anonymous whistle-blower’s letter was sent to the chief justice and Gov. Jared Polis. It outlined thousands of dollars in allegedly wasteful spending, including a team-building rowing class in Virginia that cost thousands of dollars. Auditors said they found no documentation to justify those expenditures.
Auditors also identified the misuse of paid administrative leave, including time off to employees for disciplinary investigations no one could prove actually occurred. One employee got nearly a full year off with pay and another about three months. More than 100 others were given paid administrative leave above the eight hours normally given to workers in other state agencies, two of them by more than 150 hours.
The department also signed onto nearly a dozen separation agreements with high-level executives — none of them identified in the audit — totaling $518,000 without weighing the costs or whether they were merited. Had rules such as those used by other state agencies been in place, it would have cost far less, auditors found.
Vasconcellos, a 20-year veteran of the office, said it was a lax environment that led to the auditor’s findings.
“Our system historically has a lack of structure and informality that should not be with a department of more than 200 employees and a $600 million budget,” he told the committee.
Coats said things are different now, with all the justices of the seven-member Supreme Court taking an oversight role. Previously only the chief judge presided over the SCAO.
“Let me point out that with the former court administrator’s rather abrupt departure a year ago last summer, the department has a complexion that’s completely changed,” Coats told the committee. “Now, each of my colleagues on the court has a partial supervisory role of the court administrator’s office. And that won’t change.”
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