Politics

The agency that runs Kentucky’s court system has “disorganized and unchecked leadership” and “pervasive lack of accountability” according to a special examination released by state Auditor Mike Harmon.

Harmon said that the Administrative Office of the Courts improperly held employee-only sales of surplus property and didn’t oversee how top officials used state resources, leaving the system vulnerable to abuse.

“From using taxpayer dollars to buy mint julep cups, missing laptops, questionable spending on agency credit cards and leasing office space for a justice from a company owned by members of his own family, these are just a few examples of the culture that has created an absence of accountability,” Harmon said during a news conference on Thursday morning.

The audit came at the request of Chief Justice John Minton and AOC executive director Laurie Dudgeon last year after the Lexington Herald-Leader first reported that the agency was holding employee-only sales of surplus property.

Though the report didn’t include names of officials, auditors verbally confirmed names of officials who had misused state resources, including Minton and Dudgeon, who didn’t properly document credit card activity.

The report also stated that Dudgeon instructed a staffer to purchase personalized Mint Julep cups for State Justice Institute board members at the request of Minton’s wife.

It also reported that Justice Samuel Wright had the agency lease office space from a business owned by his sons when a cheaper option was available, and that former Justices Will T. Scott and Mary Noble improperly purchased surplus property that wasn’t advertised to the public.

In the agency’s official response to the audit, AOC director Dudgeon agreed with many of the audit’s recommendations for improving accountability, but disagreed with the auditor’s claim that it should hold elected officials accountable.

“The AOC agrees that any policies developed by the Supreme Court should be enforced uniformly and consistently. Ultimately, elected officials are accountable to the voters and to the appropriate disciplinary bodies,” Dudgeon wrote.

In a statement, Minton said that the judicial branch wants to be more transparent and accountable while being “careful to safeguard” its status as an independent branch of government.

“There is value in obtaining regular audits of the AOC and making those results public, and the Supreme Court will determine the scope and frequency of audits going forward,” Minton said.

Harmon said he was disappointed in the AOC’s response that it has no role in holding elected officials accountable.

“This argument to me is certainly indefensible,” Harmon said. “No one, including judges, should be above the law.”

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.