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Controversial criminal justice audit is in limbo

State Auditor Wayne Johnson

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Six months ago, amid criticism that his review of Bernalillo County’s criminal justice system was ill-informed, redundant and a waste of tax dollars, State Auditor Wayne Johnson forged ahead, calling it “a ground-breaking and independent approach to identifying gaps” in the system.

But as Johnson’s last day in office looms, the audit of the seven Bernalillo County agencies remains unfinished.

Then it will be up to Brian Colón, who takes over as state auditor on Tuesday, to decide whether to move forward with the audit.

Brian Colon

“One of the first things I’m going to do when I take office is evaluate this and find out if it’s in the best interest of taxpayers,” Colón said Friday. “And that means evaluating whether or not this is a good use of taxpayer resources or whether it’s duplicative.”

Five of the agencies designated for the audit – the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, Metropolitan Detention Center, Metro Court, 2nd Judicial District Court and the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office – say they have contracted with firms or completed their portions of the audit at a combined cost set to exceed $90,000.

The two others, the Law Offices of the Public Defender is working on contracting with a firm while the Albuquerque Police Department is awaiting an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office as to whether it even needs to comply with the audit request.

Enrique Knell, deputy chief of staff for the outgoing state auditor, said that completed audits – including the 2nd Judicial District Court’s – revealed “information that could help those entities improve their processes.”

But not everyone agrees.

“We (fulfilled) our legal obligation to comply with a directive from the state auditor,” said 2nd Judicial District Chief Judge Nan Nash. “As a result, we expended 20,000 taxpayer dollars, from an already tight court budget, on an audit that at best has questionable value.”

‘Horrifying’ potential

As he announced his audit May 23 at a conference for government finance experts and CPAs, Johnson described the night weeks before when his elderly parents awoke to find a stranger in their bedroom rooting through his mother’s jewelry. There have been no arrests, though many of the stolen items were recovered.

“Their story, our story, ended OK,” Johnson said. “Nobody was hurt and only a few belongings were taken. APD did an outstanding job. But the potential for what could have happened is horrifying.”

The audit would examine each agency’s internal processes and the way the agencies worked within the broader justice system. Johnson said the objective was to “identify the problems that cause the system to fail us all.”

He said auditors would look at sample cases from beginning to end, among other things.

Knell said last week he could not locate documents provided to each agency listing the specifics of individual audits.

Knell said the OSA worked with each entity to keep costs down and to “prevent any duplication with previous audits or reports.”

‘Needless waste’

Early on, the 2nd Judicial District Court asked Attorney General Hector Balderas for an opinion as to whether the state auditor had the authority to conduct such a review. That opinion has not been issued.

Nash, along with Court Executive Officer Jim Noel, wrote that Johnson was planning 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.” And they said that they welcome reviews of the court’s operation, but pointed out that they were already involved in multiple ongoing reviews.

“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.

APD said that it was awaiting that opinion before moving ahead with the audit. Two days after the Journal asked the OSA for an update on the overall review of the agencies, the office sent a letter to the city saying that it would use “all the powers at its disposal to compel the City to comply with state law.”

“As of today, the City … continues to skirt its statutory duties under the Audit Act, claiming that it is waiting on an opinion from the Office of the New Mexico Attorney General on this topic,” Johnson wrote in a letter addressed to Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.

Knell said last week that the Auditor’s Office is selecting an auditor for the city, since it failed to do so.

Johnson, a Gov. Susana Martinez appointee who was running for office when he announced the audit, initially estimated it would be completed in October or November. He did not estimate the cost, which, as required by state statute, was shouldered by the individual agencies.

“Clearly, Auditor Johnson had hoped to complete this audit prior to leaving office,” Knell said. “Because of several delays and the fact that two audits were slow-rolled by their respective agencies, Auditor Johnson’s hope is that the incoming Auditor will complete this report.” He wants Colón to “build on the work already done, combining all audits into a single report that can be instructive to each agency on how we can improve the overall system.”