Erie County clerk of courts Luvada Wilson has unraveled a mystery decades in the making.
“We know where everything is,” said Wilson, after recently balancing all the bank accounts in the clerk’s name. “We finally reconciled, and that has not been done prior to me coming here”
Final tally: About $4.4 million in clerk of courts funds spread across more than 20 bank accounts.
Upon becoming clerk of courts in fall 2011, Wilson inherited an office riddled with inefficiencies and problems — mishandled money, botched bookkeeping and faulty case logs, among other problems.
A Register analysis in fall 2011 spotlighted the negligence of former clerk of courts Barb Johnson, whose 20-plus-year tenure ended around this same time, after she retired and then later died.
During her time as an elected official, Johnson failed to properly track finances in the clerk of courts office. Specifically, she did not pay people back after they or their lawyers overpaid for various office services.
Of the $4.4 million, about $3 million derives from people overpaying for services, such as filing fees, and never receiving a refund. This $3 million sits in one of the many bank accounts Wilson recently balanced.
The $3 million first began to accumulate in the late 1980s, coinciding with Johnson becoming clerk.
When each case closed, Johnson was supposed to figure out the final cost and, in many cases, issue a refund based on the remaining balance of a deposit.
For example: If a client or attorney deposited $100 and the clerk’s fees totaled $75, that person should have received a $25 refund. Johnson, however, consistently failed to dole out refunds. Instead, she or her employees would place the refund money into an interest-bearing bank account — where it sits to this day.
The refund amounts greatly ranged, the least being about $10. But $10 here and $25 there added up, until eventually the interest-bearing bank account totaled $3 million.
Johnson never explained why she did this.
When Wilson took office, she had to sort out the mess.
Wilson, who places no blame on Johnson, said she still feels 100 percent accountable to taxpayers. Her staff continues to review the books — Johnson didn’t compute data into digital format — to determine who is owed exactly what.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people can lay claim to a portion of the $3 million.
The process of figuring out who’s owed what could take several more years, said Wilson, who is digitizing the records with other staff members. But Wilson reiterated this: It will get done, as long as she’s in charge. “There is an ongoing effort to try and figure out where all of your money is,” Wilson said. She also ensured the community her staff members are now keeping accurate financial records, tracking all money coming in and out of the office. “This is very important to me,” Wilson said. “We need to run the clerk’s office like a business, and you want to be able to know where all your finances are."
Erie County clerk of courts Luvada Wilson has made enhancements to her office for the sake of convenience and efficiency.
Among the most notable improvements since she started in fall 2011:
•Introducing an online court records systems, accessible to anyone with Internet access.
•Seeking direction from the Ohio Auditor of State’s office in returning funds, up to $3 million owed to court patrons.
•Partnering with the Ohio Attorney General’s office to recoup funds from delinquent accounts owed to the clerk’s office.
•Sorting through disorganized records scattered throughout the office.
•Upgrading computers and other technology.
•Allowing patrons to pay with debit and credit cards.
•Creating a training manual.
•Cross-training certain employees so they can cover multiple jobs.
•Streamlining mail services.