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Employees who leave the State Court Administrator’s Office must now wait six months before they can be re-hired by the agency as independent contractors, one of several reforms aimed at remedying the lackluster accountability, rules and oversight within the agency that were laid out in a state audit in 2020, State Court Administrator Steve Vasconcellos told Colorado’s Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday.
The new policy also follows Denver Post reporting that a former top administrator in the office was in 2019 given a $2.5 million contract as she left the agency in order to keep her from speaking out about judicial misconduct. At the time, she faced being fired over financial irregularities, but was instead given the contract when she threatened to file a tell-all sex discrimination lawsuit if she was terminated, the agency’s former chief administrator told The Post.
“The performance audit of the State Court Administrator’s office illuminated a series of critical policy and procedure deficiencies,” Vasconcellos told the committee. “Deficiencies that if left unaddressed would impede SCAO’s ability to carry out its mission… It could also undermine confidence in the judicial department as a whole.”
The 2020 audit found administrators in the office, which manages the state’s courts, approved sole-source contracts worth millions of dollars with little oversight, gave thousands of hours of administrative leave without recording a reason for the leave, and paid hundreds of hours of family medical leave without being able to prove why.
The State Court Administrator’s Office has put in place most, but not all, of the changes recommended by the auditors, Vasconcellos said. The agency has created new rules and procedures around voluntary separation incentives, the use of company credit cards and the way administrative leave can be used.
“We’ve focused on tightening up our controls and policies and procedures related to family medical leave requests, storage of the documentation associated with that and associated security,” he said. The office’s legal team and the Attorney General’s Office now review every request for family medical leave, he said.
One person previously was responsible for handling benefits for the entire judicial branch — 4,000 employees — but the agency now has two people in that job, Vasconcellos said.
“I have some concerns long-term about whether that is an adequate number of people… but we’re trying to address that through our budget request,” he said.
The agency hasn’t yet put in place a new time-and-leave system, Vasconcellos said, which will allow the agency to better track how and why administrative leave is used. That is expected to be up and running by February; the project is about six months behind schedule.
The State Court Administrator’s Office also hasn’t yet reformed its policies around disciplinary investigations and settlement agreements, but that work is ongoing, he said. The audit’s recommendation that the office foster a culture of integrity, ethical values and accountability is an ongoing process, he said.
“It’s tempting, sometimes, because there are a lot of operational things, rules and procedures that need to be updated, it’s easy to think of audit compliance as a checklist of things to do,” Vasconcellos said. “But really this is a matter of vigilance.”
To that end, the State Court Administrator’s Office internal audit team — which has never before looked at the office itself — will perform an audit in September 2022 of the agency, he said.
The 2020 audit became the first of several investigations into both the judicial branch and the State Court Administrator’s Office. A wave of new investigations were prompted this year by both allegations of pervasive sexism within the courts and the alleged quid-pro-quo contract given to the former top administrator.
Probes by two independent law firms, the FBI, the Attorney Regulation Counsel and the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline are ongoing.