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The Ralph L. Carr Judicial Building in Denver on October 3, 2018. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The administrative arm of Colorado’s judicial branch spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on employee buyouts and paid administrative leave over a four year period, and millions more on no-bid contracts, many without sufficient records or required administrative approvals, a state audit has found.

The audit of the State Court Administrator’s Office released Monday examined operations from fiscal years 2017 through April 2020 and found gaps in the department’s human resources and financial departments. Those “raise questions about the efficacy of the SCAO’s system of internal control, including, in particular, its culture of accountability,” the state auditor’s office said. 

The audit, conducted between March and November, offered recommendations for changing the department’s policies and procedures, especially on buyouts, paid administrative leave, sole-source contracting and document management. 

The state court administrator agreed to all the recommendations and started implementing some in May, with others implemented in November, according to the state auditor’s office. All will be in place by July 2021.

The state court administrator performs administrative functions for Colorado’s judicial branch; the state Supreme Court appoints a state court administrator to lead the department. The department manages the judicial branch’s finances, human resources and technology, and also provides policy guidance and directives to district courts. For fiscal year 2020, the office has 260 full-time staffers and a budget of about $47 million.

In the audit, references to the state court administrator point to Chris Ryan, who left the position in July 2019. Steven Vasconcellos, who served as the interim administrator after Ryan left, was appointed to the post permanently in October 2019. 

During the audit period, nine employees of the administrator’s office received voluntary separation incentives, or buyouts, totaling about $518,000. Those buyouts were only approved by the state court administrator — a buyout was supposed to have approval from four high-level administrators — and the buy-out contracts were finalized before the chief justice reviewed them.

The audit also found that in 6 of 10 sole-source contracts — a contract where there is no bidding process — there wasn’t enough documented support to justify the contract. Those six contracts totaled $3.87 million. One contract was finalized with an employee who had resigned six days earlier.

Other findings from the audit:

  • There were no records for why staffers received 3,600 hours of paid administrative leave, or 27% of the total leave granted in the audit’s time period.
  • 1,060 of the hours of paid administrative leave, spread across 102 situations, went beyond the “normal” amount allocated for most staffers. Specifically, two staff members each received 152 paid leave hours more than the “normal” amount, but there was no documentation to justify the leave. Neither employee is still with the SCAO.
  • There were no records available for 10 Family Medical Leave Act cases or two disciplinary cases.
  • There were issues in approvals for 30% of procurement card purchases reviewed, totaling $49,500.

MORE: Read the audit here.

As part of the audit, the policies of the state court administrator were compared to those of the executive branch, which is managed by the governor. The auditors found that the state court administrator offered more generous options, especially around buyouts, than comparable executive branch positions would have received. 

For example, buyouts totaling $518,000 would have cost no more than $343,000 had they occurred under the executive branch.

The audit also found the state court administrator did not track why someone was on paid administrative leave, and had no limits for the maximum hours authorized or for paid leave associated with disciplinary investigations. During the audit period, the office spent more than $476,000 on paid administrative leave.

The state’s Legislative Audit Committee heard a presentation about the audit on Monday. Chair Lori Saine, a Firestone Republican, called the findings “horrifying,” but noted that multiple people in supervisory positions during the audit’s time period — including Ryan, the former department head — are no longer employed there.

“Hopefully the bad apples have left the building, so to speak,” Saine said.

The audit came in the wake of a series of Denver Post investigations, published in the summer of 2019. The Post reported that the department was spending in excess, especially on administrative leave, potentially to the point of committing fraud. 

Audits by Colorado’s Office of the State Auditor can be requested by anyone, whether they’re a legislator or an average citizen.

Lucy Haggard was a TRENDS Reporting Fellow from August 2020 to May 2021 with The Colorado Sun. Email: Twitter: @lucy_haggard