An annual audit of the Washington County Register of Wills found “significant” issues with how the row office operated last year after undergoing widespread staffing changes shortly after James Roman was elected to lead the department.
The audit conducted by county Controller Michael Namie found various problems with record keeping, internal controls over bank accounts and untimely payments to the state and county.
No money was missing or misappropriated, Namie said, but the audit offers several findings and recommendations on what Roman can do to improve how the office operates.
“In our world, there were some significant findings,” Namie said of the audit that was delivered to the county commissioners Thursday and released to the Observer-Reporter on Monday.
Roman was elected Register of Wills and clerk of Orphans’ Court in November 2019 as Republicans swept all five county row offices on the ballot that year. Namie said the majority of the problems within the office happened between March and July while the office underwent “staff turnover” as Roman began making changes upon assuming the leadership position.
“In my opinion, because there was nobody there with institutional knowledge, it contributed to issues in the office,” Namie said.
After reviewing the audit Monday afternoon, Roman said he dealt with numerous challenges at the beginning of his term when three staff members resigned on the same day in March just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down normal business operations in the courthouse. He noted that the audit shows no money was missing from more than $17 million that passed through his office last year.
“I take pride in the fact I was able to achieve that under unique circumstances I was brought into,” Roman said. “There’s nothing that’s earth-shattering in here.”
Namie’s office conducts annual audits of all the row offices in the courthouse and prepares a report with comments, findings and recommendations. The controller’s office scheduled an in-person exit interview on April 30 to discuss the report in detail, but Roman refused to attend because he demanded the meeting be audio recorded, according to the audit.
The audit found issues that ranged from relatively minor to more significant problems with suggestions from the controller’s office on how they can be corrected.
According to the audit, bank account reconciliations are not always performed, leading to overpayments and underpayments to the state and county. Additionally, the staff member who prepares deposits and delivers them to the bank is also responsible for processing transactions in the accounting system, leading to a lack of operational oversight, the audit found.
While the finalized annual reports of collection fees for the Register of Wills, Orphans’ Court and Inheritance Tax accounts all were balanced, the report classifications did not agree in 10 to 12 months, according to the audit. Transactions in the system also were altered in seven months last year.
“Since the system currently reflects lower amounts from the original receipt report, there is not a concern that there was a misappropriation of funds, as the higher amounts on the original report have been accounted for in the bank deposits,” the audit states.
The fee rates also were revised in September, but the reports were not updated with new rate codes in the computer system, so the staff had to calculate fees manually. The audit also found that payments were not made in a timely manner to the state and county from March through July. Roman blamed that problem on the various government shutdowns at the beginning of the pandemic.
The audit also raised questions on smaller issues, such as why the fees for certified copies of marriage licenses were not charged on two occasions in a single day while a member of the controller’s audit staff was observing the office. It’s unknown how many fees were waived throughout the year since the “off-book transactions” were not entered into the system. The decision to waive the fees likely led to a loss of revenue for the state and county, although the exact figure was unknown.
“Upon inquiry of the staff, the employees communicated that was not uncommon for fees to be waived and (Roman) was aware of this practice,” the audit states.
Roman explained that the $10 fee was waived for veterans, a policy he plans to continue until the controller’s office demands he reverse course.
Adoption revenue of $9,837 was charged to the wrong “general ledger account,” although the money was directed to the correct account before the close of the year, according to the audit.
The controller’s office also noticed that the Register of Wills was charged $268 in bank fees last year, which was more than the $120 it earned in interest on the account. The audit suggested the office request the bank to waive its fees and forgo an interest yield account because deposits should not be held for a lengthy period of time before they are transferred to the state or county. Roman said the bank has already agreed to waive the annual fee.
“This is all superficial information to try to discredit me,” Roman said.
The office handles marriage license applications, along with filings for adoptions, guardianships and estates. It also accepts inheritance tax payments for the state Department of Revenue. Mary Jo Poknis retired at the end of 2019 after serving as Register of Wills for 12 years.