Auditing firm on EBR Clerk of Court credit card expenses: 'Obviously, we don't look at every document' _lowres

East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court Doug Welborn

The East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court’s Office laid off 12 employees over the past two weeks, citing budget constraints and declining revenue over the past two years.

The layoffs come as the state Inspector General’s Office is investigating questionable spending practices by the agency’s top administrators.

Some employees who were laid off have cried foul over the reduction in force, citing what they characterize as mismanagement at the top. They take issue with generous salary increases for some administrative employees while rank-and-file employees had to forgo cost-of-living increases in recent years.

“Going into the second half of 2015-2016 fiscal year, the Clerk of Court’s Office has determined that it is necessary to reduce its workforce,” said Fred Sliman, a spokesman for Clerk of Court Doug Welborn. “Revenues for the first half of the 2015-2016 fiscal years have not met projections, and in order to avoid a budget deficit, reorganization in workforce is necessary.”

The Clerk’s Office had 139 full-time employees and 37 part-time workers before the layoffs.

Joyce Swearingen, who worked for the Clerk’s Office for 31 years, was among those let go last week. She said the budget issues in the office were well known and didn’t happen overnight.

“I think it’s just too much spending and mismanagement of money,” she said. “There are inflated salaries for a few special people, but the clerk has not given across-the-board raises for the last two or three years.”

Three other employees who said they were laid off declined to be identified for this story because they are searching for other jobs.

Public record requests detailing some administrative salaries over the years illustrate significant hikes between 2010 and 2014. Sometimes the hikes appeared to be related to a promotion, but other years, administrators could see pay increase by as much as 20 percent unrelated to a title change.

For example, Chief Deputy Greg Brown, who is second in command to Welborn, saw his pay increase 27 percent over the past four years, from $95,004 a year to $120,749 per year. The most significant hike occurred between 2012 and 2013, when his pay jumped from $104,742 to $120,749. Sliman could not identify any changes in job titles for Brown during this period.

Another top administrator, Gerard Hall, the accounting manager, enjoyed a pay increase of 45 percent, from $72,150 to $105,000 over the four-year period. His title also did not change during that time, Sliman said.

Meanwhile, Brandi Walker, registry of the court, saw her pay increase 45 percent, from $54,202 to $78,750. Walker was promoted to her position in 2013, but her largest salary increase came a year earlier, from 2011 to 2012, when it rose 23 percent, from $56,912 to $70,000.

Sliman said even though Brown and Hall didn’t get promotions, they received pay increases for “merit and additional job responsibilities.”

No raises were given from 2014 to 2015.

In 2014, the agency reported an almost $1.9 million budget deficit. The total revenues for the agency are about $12.6 million.

“The clerk of court has made efforts to provide across-the-board raises when possible, which the revenue concerns in the previous two years prohibited,” Sliman said in an email. “However, there have been some other years that these raises were not able to be provided due to budgetary reasons.”

Sliman said the Clerk’s Office provided an across-the-board raise of more than 5 percent at least once in the past decade.

The recent layoffs will generate a savings of $537,532 annually, Sliman said. Prior to those cuts, he said, other positions were eliminated as people quit or retired, resulting in a total savings in payroll of $767,031.

“No additional reductions are planned at this time, but revenues will continue to be closely monitored moving toward the end of the 2016 fiscal year,” Sliman said.

A recent review of spending by The Advocate into the Clerk of Court’s Office revealed that it spent at least $93,000 on a government credit card that was used in large part for lavish meals and travel. It also showed that Welborn’s administrators used the credit card at sporting goods and outdoor gear stores.

Among the more exorbitant purchases was $760 for two purple and gold Yeti coolers at Cabela’s in Gonzales.

The office spent about $20,000 on the government credit card in both 2013 and 2014 at hotels and casinos for office conferences, sending as many as 19 employees to a single conference.

In its review, The Advocate also revealed Welborn has spent more than $100,000 a year leasing a custom-made storage space on Wooddale that holds judicial records, in addition to a fully stocked tool shed, befitting of a repair shop. The storage space also has a private office for Welborn, a flat-screen TV, a leather couch, a kitchenette and a bathroom with a shower. The Clerk’s Office has spent more than $800,000 of public dollars on the storage space since 2004.

Sliman and an attorney for Welborn have stated all the expenditures are proper and the extensive array of tools and garden equipment are used for their inhouse maintenance needs. However, Welborn’s office leases all of its office space and bears no responsibility for maintenance of grounds or vehicles.

In November, the Legislative Auditor’s Office said it would not investigate the Clerk of Court’s Office because it did not want to interfere with an active investigation being conducted by the state Inspector General’s Office.

The Inspector General’s Office said it couldn’t confirm or deny the investigation. Staff in the office confirmed that investigators from the state have visited the Clerk’s Office in recent months to review records.

Last fall, Welborn, who earns more than $135,000 a year, easily won his seventh term as clerk of court.

The Clerk of Court’s Office is responsible for processing lawsuits and traffic tickets for the 19th Judicial District Court, and issues marriage licenses and passports in the parish, among other duties.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhall buzz/.