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Court seeks AG’s opinion on state auditor’s plan

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

State District Court officials are seeking the Attorney General’s opinion on whether the state auditor’s plan to examine Bernalillo County’s justice system “exceeds the authority and power” of that office.

In a letter to Attorney General Hector Balderas, 2nd District Chief Judge Nan Nash and Court Executive Officer Jim Noel said they believe the state auditor’s plan to examine the system through a series of audits “invites needless waste of tax payer money” and may exceed his authority.

On Tuesday, the state auditor responded with a letter to Nash in which he wrote that the court’s “resistance to the special audit” could be perceived as “evidence of bureaucratic inaction that stymies any forward-thinking solutions to the crime wave that has decimated” New Mexico’s quality of life.

Last month, State Auditor Wayne Johnson said his office would conduct an examination of the Bernalillo County criminal justice system and seven agencies working within it. Each agency involved, including the 2nd Judicial District Court, will undergo an audit and then the OSA will analyze the way the system functions as a whole, with findings expected in the fall.

A spokesman for the AG’s Office said in an email Tuesday that the matter is under review.

In their letter to Balderas, Nash and Noel wrote that Johnson aims to address crime and recidivism, even though New Mexico lawmakers and courts have “understood the duties of the state auditor to be confined to financial and related matters.”

In his response, Johnson writes that “designating agencies for special audits or performance audits, is a well established and important function” of his office, and his authority to do so is supported by the state’s audit rules and regulations. He cites a 1968 Supreme Court opinion that said the state auditor has “the power, duty and authority to examine and pass upon the activities of state officers and agencies, who by law, receive and expend public moneys by lawful authority.”

Nash and Noel say the court welcomes review of its operation, but they point to multiple existing and ongoing criminal justice system reviews that they are already involved in.

“The very act of requiring the seven agencies … to expend funds and resources on seven special audits, when the issues contemplated in the auditor’s designation letters are already being addressed on numerous fronts, creates the needless waste of the same resources that the state auditor claims to be protecting,” Nash and Noel wrote.

Johnson writes that those groups have policymaking goals and are largely made up of stakeholders who work within the system. He says his audit intends to “look quite simply at the various processes and look at weaknesses within the system that reduce the effectiveness of the agencies’ missions.” He says he applauds existing efforts and hopes to build on them, but recent crime statistics suggest “something is not working as it should.”

“The Special Audit designated by this office provides something that no other review has provided – an independent audit by trained professionals whose specialty is the review of policies and analysis of systems,” Johnson wrote. “Finding waste, fraud, and abuse is a statutory mandate of this office, and nothing is more wasteful and harmful to New Mexicans than a dysfunctional criminal justice system.”

Along with the court, the Albuquerque Police Department, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, the Metropolitan Detention Center, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, the Albuquerque Public Defender’s Office and Metropolitan Court are included in the audit. As required by state statute, the seven agencies will shoulder the cost of the audit.

Despite those concerns, Noel said Tuesday that the court respects the auditor’s “role in holding government entities and stewards of state money accountable” and is working to find an independent public accountant who can assist in the effort.

“At the same time, we’re having a hard time grappling with accomplishing the objectives laid out by the state auditor for this designation, which is why we’ve asked the Attorney General’s Office to provide some guidance,” he said.

Johnson, in his letter, said that his office is willing to work with the court to craft an appropriate scope of work.

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