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Findings of state audit of Head of Harbor court referred to Suffolk DA

Head of the Harbor Village Justice Court is

Head of the Harbor Village Justice Court is seen on July 7, 2015, in St. James. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Findings of an audit of the Head of the Harbor Village Justice Court were referred to the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office after auditors discovered that financial records were missing, according to the state comptroller’s office.

During 21 months between 2016 and 2017 when a former part-time clerk performed all the court’s financial duties and maintained case files, no deposit slips, credit card settlement reports or bank reconciliations were retained, the audit found. Bank records were also missing for some months and case files did not always contain sufficient documentation of the justice’s decisions.

"The clerk did not work sufficient hours to properly conduct the administrative and financial business of the court" and the presiding court justice "did not provide adequate oversight," auditors found.

A spokeswoman for the comptroller said that office had opened an investigation with the Suffolk district attorney and referred questions to the district attorney's office. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office did not respond to interview requests.

The former clerk was not named in the audit report, but village payroll lists a former part-time clerk named Christine Wood and the comptroller's spokeswoman confirmed the name. Wood could not be reached.

The former clerk was supposed to work about 12 hours a week but was not required to submit time records and village officials could not confirm the hours she worked, according to the report. During that time she was paid $32,889.

After she resigned at the end of November 2017 and another clerk started making deposits, auditors noted "a significant increase in reported collections," though the reasons for the increase were not clear, the report said.

The report did not say why auditors had alerted law enforcement. Nor did it name the justice or describe possible criminal exposure for any of the officials involved.

Head of the Harbor’s elected court justice, Ellen Fishkin, served during the audit period, Mayor Douglas Dahlgard said; she could not be reached.

Dahlgard, who does not have direct oversight over the court, referred questions to Fishkin but said the court had already made changes recommended in the report. "This is really ancient history, as far as we’re concerned," he said.

In a Dec. 23 letter from Dahlgard and Fishkin to Ira McCracken, the comptroller’s chief examiner, the village officials said they had hired a new court clerk in 2017 and taken corrective actions including updating court computer software and tracking the new clerk’s work hours. Court bank accounts and reconciliations are reviewed by the village treasurer each month, they said, and the disposition of citations that had not been reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles have now been reported.

The village justice court, generally held monthly at Village Hall, has jurisdiction over criminal matters committed within the village and other local matters including traffic offenses, collecting in some years over $100,000 in fines and fees. The former clerk worked full-time for a neighboring village court and part-time for two additional village courts. Small Long Island municipalities often depend on part-time clerks, inspectors and municipal attorneys who may serve multiple jurisdictions at once.

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