The financial scrutiny once aimed at the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court's Office has resurfaced as the parish's longtime Clerk Doug Welborn faces a reelection challenge from outgoing Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis.
Collins-Lewis, a Democrat, is taking aim at past investigations into the office's use of credit cards, allegations of fiscal mismanagement and weakness surrounding policy implementation and procedures as she argues for the need for new leadership.
Welborn, a Republican who has served as the parish's clerk of court for seven consecutive terms, points out those investigations found no criminal negligence on his part and says he has addressed many of the concerns raised by state auditors.
Early voting for the Oct. 12 election begins Sept. 28 and ends Oct. 5, excluding Sept. 29, a Sunday.
The probe into the Clerk of Court's Office mostly occurred after a 2016 audit revealed the office had routinely spent tens of thousands of dollars in public funds on meals, hotel rooms, storage space and much more over the years.
Allegations also surfaced that Welborn had leaned on employees to give him money and gifts on holidays, his birthday and for his reelection campaign — which he has denied.
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While an audit released the following year noted the Clerk's office was no longer charging taxpayers for expensive meals, state auditors still dinged the office for lacking financial safeguards, such as failing to keep track of equipment, leaving cash unsecured during the day, and payroll duties not being properly administered.
Welborn, who has served as the parish's clerk of court since 1991, points out he asked the state's Legislative Auditor's Office to conduct an investigation into his office after the allegations of misconduct surfaced in 2015.
He also said that since the audit reports, he and his office staff have worked to address the items auditors dinged them for and they have had "solid reports since then."
"Our last three years of audits and budget balances have been positive, with every effort made to utilize staffing and technology to make our operations as fiscally effective as possible," he said. "Though our office is almost completely self-funded and depends on virtually no tax money, we make it a primary mission to be good stewards of these public dollars."
Collins-Lewis disagrees, saying it's time for new leadership and the new vision she would provide if elected.
"My goal as clerk will be to regain the trust of the public by having policies and procedures in place that are adhered to by all," she said. "After I am elected, I will conduct a thorough review of each department and policies that are currently in place."
Collins-Lewis, who is in the third year of her third term on the Metro Council and is term-limited, also promised to closely monitor spending on a regular basis so the Clerk of Court's office doesn't experience another deficit, as it has in recent years.
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The councilwoman, who recently picked up an endorsement from the parish's Democratic Executive Committee, is touting transparency and accountability if elected. She plans to streamline the department's processes and procedures, create a work environment where employees are valued and respected, and provide an open-door policy for judges, attorneys and the general public.
"For over 20 years I have worked in the area of development of affordable housing, overseeing construction to assure projects did not go over budget," Collins-Lewis said. "For the past 11 years as a council member, I have been intimately involved in providing input and oversight for the city's annual budget totaling over $900 million in assets."
Welborn's goals, if he's reelected, include keeping customer service at the forefront of the office's operations and to continue striving for technological advancements that can enhance the customer's experience.
"We regrettably continue to see an increase in domestic violence cases and our pledge is to help as many of those affected as possible as our office is often the first stop in obtaining restraining orders," he said. "Currently in progress is an update of the land records system, with solid tools already in place for enhanced research of our oldest records."
Welborn has pledged to continue monitoring expenses and to seek the best prices and rates for goods and services.
"I continue to stand on my record of service and feel, from feedback we constantly receive, that our public appreciates it," he said.