State audit finds problems with Lake Station court fund
State authorities have stepped into the middle of a dispute between Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist and Lake Station City Court Judge Christopher Anderson over the firing of Soderquist’s stepdaughter, claiming the city improperly paid her more than $13,000 after she was fired.
The State Board of Accounts released a report Thursday detailing its investigation into that and other issues dealing with the City Court, including the improper charging of court fees.
The report says that Miranda Brakley, Soderquist’s stepdaughter and deputy clerk for the City Court, was in charge of collecting bond payments from the Lake Station Police Department, processing the payments and then depositing them at the bank.
However, the SBOA found that bond money totalling $16,464 from 39 cases was never deposited.
Most of the money was recovered in December when Brakley turned in a bank bag containing $15,800, which she said was the bond money. She told the SBOA that the money had been sitting in her vehicle since she was fired in June.
It is not clear if the SBOA discovered that the money was missing before or after she was fired.
Brakley’s firing caused a stir at the time after the Lake Station City Council voted a week later to return control of the court clerks to the clerk-treasurer’s office, where they had been since 2008.
Soderquist speculated at the time that Anderson fired Brakley because he got wind of plans to remove the positions from his control.
Anderson and Soderquist could not be reached for comment.
Clerk-Treasurer Brenda Samuels subsequently rehired Brakley, although that lasted just two weeks when Lake County Superior Court Judge Calvin Hawkins issued a temporary restraining order against the move.
During that time period, the SBOA says, Brakley received $468 from the court fund for seven days of vacation and another $12,661 from the city’s general fund that was reportedly unusued compensatory and sick time. However, the SBOA claims that Brakley had already used all but half an hour of vacation pay by the time she was fired and that the judge never signed off on the payment. As for the other payment, the city had no authority to pay her, the SBOA says.
“Furthermore, except for retirees, employees within the Clerk-Treasurer’s Office could not name any other employee who received such compensation upon termination of employment whether voluntary or involuntary,” the SBOA report says.
The state agency also found discrepancies in payments she received for serving as an alcohol monitor, saying that there was no documentation of the hours she worked from 2008 to September 2011 and that some of the hours she claimed to have worked as the alochol monitor were the same hours she was working as court clerk.
The SBOA wants Brakley to repay Lake Station $13,130 and to pay the state of Indiana $23,358 for the investigation work.
She’s a ‘pawn’
Brakley’s attorney, Scott King, lambasted the report and said she never acted improperly or with malice.
“I really think that for whatever reason or reasons, they’re attempting to make her the whipping child here, and it’s completely inappropriate,” he said Monday. “... And then they have the audacity to seek the cost of the audit.”
King responded in writing to the report, saying in it that Brakley was a “pawn” in a political fight between Judge Anderson and other city officials. He noted that when Brakley was fired, she set aside a box of items, including the bank bag with $15,800, to turn over to the clerk-treasurer’s office. However, it seemed another court employee took that box along with others to Brakley’s car.
Thinking everything in the car was her personal belongings, King writes, Brakley never checked the boxes until December and did not realize the money was sitting in her car.
King said Monday he is in the process of filing a lawsuit on behalf of Brakley over her firing and said that Anderson might not even be legally allowed to serve as Lake Station judge because it appeared he does not live in the city. Anderson’s home address listed on election forms is 3405 Parkside Ave., which is in Lake Station.
Samuels said Monday the court clerks had originally been under her office but she had no knowledge of what they did, so she worked with Judge Anderson several years ago to move them to his supervision. No one with the City Council talked to her before voting to return the clerks back to her oversight, Samuels said. She said she Brakley back because she was familiar with how the office works.
As for paying the compensatory and sick time to Brakley, Samuels said it did go against city ordinance because it was not preapproved but that the city attorney told her to pay it because Brakley could prove she earned the hours in 2008.
“He said if you get sued, you’re going to pay triple,” she said.
Along with the issues surrounding Brakley, the SBOA also found that the Lake Station court has not been charging the correct fees to defendants.