State Supreme Court hands Orleans Criminal Court Clerk Arthur Morrell victory in scrap with Landrieu administration _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN MCCUSKER -- Arthur Morrell makes notes during a joint hearing of the City Council's criminal justice and budget committees in July 2013.

Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell used his office’s credit card for more than $7,000 in personal expenses, and his office used $78,000 in public funds for celebrations, nonprofit donations and gifts and meals for employees, according to a report from the Legislative Auditor’s Office released Monday.

Morrell also used state reimbursements to improperly give extra pay to employees working on elections, the report says.

The audit was requested by Secretary of State Tom Schedler after his office found “questionable” election-related expenses by Morrell’s office, which is responsible for running elections in New Orleans.

It follows years of legal wrangling between Morrell and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration over whether the city, which provides the money for most of the clerk’s operations, can set the budget for the office or whether it must provide all the money Morrell says he needs.

That fight loomed large in Morrell’s response to the audit, which makes reference to staff vacancies due to budget issues. The audit’s release also provided an opportunity for the Landrieu administration to argue that stricter scrutiny of Morrell’s spending is needed.

The audit includes a detailed look at expenses incurred by the clerk’s office since 2006 and raises questions about whether it has been following state laws and policies in the way it pays election workers and handles other public funds.

In a statement Monday, Morrell said most of the practices criticized in the audit were handled the same way before he took office in 2006.

“The Clerk of Criminal Court’s Office has been audited every year since 2006, pursuant to state law, and there were no questions concerning the audits,” Morrell said. “This office will incorporate suggestions and recommendations of the Legislative Auditor’s Office into our office policies as well as future audits.”

The audit says Morrell used the office’s credit card to pay for more than $7,000 in personal expenses. In his letter responding to the findings, he said he had reimbursed the office for those expenses.

The most dramatic finding is that Morrell spent about $59,000 between December 2006 and February 2015 for “office celebrations and meals,” mostly for catering services, entertainment, security, invitations and photography for annual Christmas parties. That spending may violate state law, the audit says. About $6,250 also went toward picnics for election commissioners.

Morrell defended those parties in his response to the audit, saying they were aimed at building “the spirits and camaraderie of our employees” at a time when staffing was low, something he has blamed on the Landrieu administration’s refusal to fund the office at the level he requested. Because the parties were open to the public, Morrell said they also provided a chance “to inform the public and elected officials of the dilemma the clerk’s office was experiencing.”

The audit says Morrell spent about $13,000 of the office’s money on donations to nonprofits, including schools and civic and religious organizations, and about $5,900 on gifts or flower arrangements for employees.

The office’s handling of elections also came under scrutiny.

Between February 2010 and March 2014, the office paid more than $120,000 to employees for election work at rates higher than their normal rate of pay, more than $213,000 to election workers who were not pre-authorized by the Secretary of State’s Office and more than $53,000 for expenses that were not pre-authorized by the Secretary of State’s Office.

State law and Secretary of State’s Office policy require pre-authorization for such expenses and do not allow workers to be paid at higher rates unless a policy is in place governing those wages, which Morrell’s office did not have.

In his response, Morrell said the pay rates have been the same for election workers since before he took office and that several clerks in other parishes he spoke with were unaware of the policies cited by the auditor. Going forward, he said, the office has put policies in place to comply with the rules.

Between January 2010 and March 2014, the audit says, the election coordinator in Morrell’s office was improperly paid $3,250 in per diems from the Secretary of State’s Office for attending meetings of the Orleans Parish Board of Elections Supervisors during regular business hours, when she also was being paid by the clerk’s office. In his response, Morrell said he is looking into that issue.

Morrell said he plans to create a position for a “compliance officer” once “my budget is fully funded.”

The Landrieu administration said the problems cited in the audit show why the city needs oversight of Morrell’s budget.

“The issues identified in this report highlight why it is untenable that the clerk’s position is not accountable to the city of New Orleans and the taxpayers who fund his office,” Landrieu spokesman Hayne Rainey said. “Every office needs budgetary checks and balances, and this report demonstrates why those checks and balances are critical.”

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