You know what they say about holes: When you find yourself in one, stop digging.
That’s good advice for when you’re on the losing end of an argument. It’s also good advice for when you’re having trouble meeting basic expenses. So Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell might want to heed that recommendation on two counts.
Morrell has been pleading poverty for years now, and criticizing New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu for not fully funding his otherwise independently managed office. The law may be on his side, at least according to several courts, even if common sense dictates that his office should absorb budget cuts during tough times just like other city agencies do.
Now that the state Legislative Auditor has released an unflattering report on his spending practices, whatever leg Morrell had to stand on with the public is looking a lot weaker.
The audit uncovered some damning stuff, including Morrell’s habit of putting personal expenses on the clerk’s credit cards (he said he’s reimbursed more than $7,000 to the office), using government money to make donations to nonprofits and purchase gifts and flowers for employees, and paying employees more than their normal pay rate for election work without prior state approval.
The most eye-catching expenses were $59,000 he spent between December 2006 and February 2015 on office meals and parties, which Morrell justified as morale-builders during a time of short staffing mandated by, you guessed it, budget constraints.
Morrell blames Landrieu for that, but the mayor’s administration has long contended that the clerk needs to get his own house in order and do a better job of stretching the public funds that support his office.
After the audit came out, Morrell vowed to comply with the auditor’s recommendations for improvement, even as he defended his stewardship and noted that “this audit request has been brought during a period of time when the Clerk of Criminal Court’s office has been severely understaffed and underfunded.”
Which suggests he hasn’t gotten the memo about the digging — at least not yet.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.