Behind the Headlines – January 11, 2019

Behind the Headlines – January 11, 2019


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines
is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like
you, thank you. – A forensic audit
of the criminal court and a look at the new
city council appointments tonight on Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, president
and executive editor of The Daily Memphian,
thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight
by Heidi Kuhn. You are the newly
elected Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk.
– Yes. – Thanks for being here.
– Absolutely. – Along with Bill Dries, reporter with
The Daily Memphian. Let’s start, you took office,
what, 90 days ago in the fall, newly elected to this
office after many years in county government.
– Yes. – We’ll talk about some of that, but pretty quickly,
you called for an audit with some real
concerns about what was going on financially
in that office. Talk about what you
found and why you called for this outside audit. – Okay, well while
I was running, during the campaign, it
was brought to my attention that there was things
going on with the budget. And so I knew coming
in that I would be, some issues were going to be right there and then
when I took office. So when we went in, and
we were kinda cleaning up, getting ready to take
over our offices, opening drawers
and finding checks that were not deposited,
finding file folders in-between the desk and the wall was a little concerning,
and then coupled with the fact that we knew
the budget was incorrect. So that kind of
led me to believe something needs to happen,
and I wanna make sure that we’re walking
into an office that is cleared, and so
I called for an audit. – And so, and I
think I read also that you also told
County Commission this. I mean, you immediately
sort of said here’s what’s going on. Those checks were
made out to whom, and who are they from? – Most of the checks
were made out to us, and they were
either from clients that had made a payment
on their account, some of them were
made from law firms, but what we couldn’t
do is figure out who they were from and
we can reconcile those. They hadn’t been
deposited, and some of them had been several,
couple years old. – And much of this,
I think, started, give or take, in
2016 when there was a changeover in the
accounting system, is that right?
– Yes. Well, the Odyssey system
which was implemented in November of 2016,
that is my understanding as to why certain
things weren’t done. So some of these checks
were as old as 2016. – Well, the amount of
money, and then also money that had been deposited
and collected, and so, and we’ll get into
some of the inner workings of this a little bit later,
but much of that money you all collect as
the clerk’s office and then funnel out to other
entities in county government, is that fair?
– Exactly. – Much… money that
had been collected was just sitting in the
bank and not being given to its proper destination. – Right, it was not being
allocated or disseminated to the other entities
that were owed, such as Shelby County government,
the sheriff’s office. – I mean, a fair
amount of money. Was it $244,000 at one point to the general fund
of Shelby County? – That’s actually
what we paid out, yeah, but that was due.
– You paid out. – But a great example
is General Sessions was owed close to $800,000,
and they had not been paid. Most of these entities
had not been paid in about a year and
a half to two years. – What entities are those? – As I mentioned, it could
be Shelby County government, General Sessions, it could
be the jail, as the sheriff, other agencies as
well, so it’s kind of, it’s a percentage base
on who gets paid out, so but they’re ones
that are up at the top, and you just pay out as you go. – And then, get Bill
here in a second, but just, again, that is
money coming from people who’ve been fined, or lawyers
working on their behalf? I’m a little confused on that, where that money’s
coming from, so bear– – Well, there are some,
there are two different budgets that we have. What we do is, when
we bill the State on cases that we have, they
reimburse us for each case, so they receive money.
– For processing fees for your time.
– Mm-hm. – Okay.
– And then that money is received by our office,
and then it’s allocated and disseminated to the
other agencies that may have incurred costs due to that case. – So those checks from the
State weren’t being deposited in some cases.
– Well actually, they weren’t being billed,
and that’s an issue within itself because the
courts are paid by the State. So when you’re
not billing cases, the State is looking and saying, well, you really don’t need
the 10 criminal court judges. Maybe you don’t
have as many cases as you’ve said you’ve had,
which could’ve resulted in the taking away of a judge, which as you well
know, we have a problem of crime in Shelby
County, so we need those 10 criminal courts, if not more. – Okay, that’s fascinating. So that’s, okay, so that’s
the State, and then are, do money from, like, if I
get a parking fine or I get, does something, do those
kinds of things pass through? – Not a parking fine.
– Okay. – But if you’ve got,
if you’ve been assessed fines and fees from your
case, a criminal court case, then you can pay on
those as well, so– – Okay, and that runs
through your office. – That runs through
the office, yes. – So let’s say that I,
and then I wanna get back to the budget part, but
let’s say that I’m a person who’s paying down some fines–
– Sure. – And we’ve talked a lot
about fines and the impact, and we’ll talk about
that a little bit later on the show today,
too, but let’s say I have written a
check, it’s gone there, and it wasn’t deposited,
it wasn’t recorded. – Right.
– That then still shows up on my record as an
unpaid fine, apparently. – Exactly.
– So that could then prevent me from
getting licenses. – Could be expungements,
anything like that. And if it’s not, if we
don’t put in to the system who paid and when and for
what, then that’s a problem for those that are
coming in paying, for those offenders or for
those customers that are coming in to pay because there’s
no tracking system. – [laughs] This is,
everyone who is listening who is a skeptic of
government and its ability to do anything–
– Exactly. – This is their living–
– Their worst nightmare. – This is their, yes.
– Yeah, agreed. – So let’s keep goin’ on
this, just because it is, I mean, it’s fascinating
and kind of horrifying as a taxpayer, I mean, right? I mean, it’s just, I mean that, I don’t wanna be, break
my objectivity here, but about how many
checks have you found? – Just several.
– Okay. – You know, I don’t
have an exact amount. – Sure.
– But enough to cause concern. And it’s not that all of them
weren’t put into a system. What they weren’t
put into was Odyssey. They were put into
an Excel spreadsheet. – (Eric)
So they’re kinda tracking. – Which is unsecure, and
also, or a handwritten log. – Okay.
– Which is unsecure and you can’t audit that,
and it’s very unsafe because you don’t know
what’s happening with that, and it needed to be
in a secured system. – You said you had heard
on the campaign trail that the budget was wrong,
you got in and you said the budget, there was
a, what was your quote, at least as we framed
it in the article, the actually budget
was a facade. What does that mean? – It means that what they
claimed as an actual budget versus their proposed
budget was incorrect, because if they’re
not billing the State and not receiving
reimbursable funds, then what they’re
stating is false because they had not
stated, or they had stated they were receiving
money when they weren’t for that, for those two years. – Let me get Bill in here. – So, Heidi, have you had to
create some accounting systems that weren’t there
before as soon as you walk in the door here?
– Absolutely. That was the first thing
that we needed to do because we figured out
an Excel spreadsheet is not conducive to running
an efficient office. And like I stated,
it’s insecure, and we wanted to make
sure that we had a system, and Odyssey is built for that. They weren’t utilizing Odyssey
for those payments plans because those are automatically
connected to cases. And which you mentioned,
how do you know if yours is being paid out if
you’re a customer coming in, an offender, and you
wanna pay down your fines. There was really no
way of reconciling that with an Excel spreadsheet. – So you took office
September 1st. Budget season will be
here before you know it. You have to submit
a budget proposal to the Shelby County Commission. Is this going to
affect the budget that you propose here
in a couple of months? – It is, it’s very
concerning because we need to propose a budget
within March, and we’re not exactly sure
of the monies that we have, and so that’s why I’ve
called for the audit because we need to understand
what we’re working with. And fortunately, we’ve
made great advancements in the four months
that I’ve been there, so we have a little
bit of an understanding of maybe what
direction we’re headed. But the commission is very aware of our circumstance
and our situation, and I’m hoping that they
will be a little bit lenient in regard to our
budget and our request because we’ve also
found that we need about 12 additional
staff members for us to be at a
full complement. – And that’s because of the size of the criminal justice
system that your office deals with every day,
five days a week? – Yeah, we have a lot
going on in the office. We have a lot of moving
parts in what we do, and a lotta people
don’t understand exactly what the Criminal Court
Clerk’s office does. We have clerks in the courtroom, we run expungement,
we take in the money, we are basically the
keeper of the records for all the 10 criminal courts. – How many employees
do you have right now? You’re talking about
asking for 12 more. – I believe it’s about 94. – Okay, your
predecessor, Richard, I can’t pronounce this right. – De Seussure.
– De Seussure. – De Seussure, said
to Yolanda Jones, a reporter for The
Daily Memphian, “I chose to sit on the
money owed to the agencies until Odyssey,” the
system you mentioned, “could be fixed and we
could properly account “for the money we were
sending to the agency. “The money was in the bank,
but I chose to sit on it “because the Odyssey
system could not show which defendant’s account
the money came from.” Are you calling for,
I mean, do you blame your predecessor for this? And did something,
well, I’ll start there. – Okay, well I, obviously
there were issues when we walked into the office with the policies and procedures and operations of the office. I don’t necessarily
wanna place blame, but when you walk
into the office and you’re finding checks
and hidden files and things, that’s a problem, and
so what we wanna do is make sure that we start
off right from the beginning. As you’ve stated previously,
there is a mistrust with government, and
so we wanted to show that we are going
to be transparent in what we are doing,
and we wanna correct anything that was
done incorrectly with the previous
administration. – Was this done maliciously,
I mean to kind of subvert something, to
funnel money into places it shouldn’t go, or
was it mismanagement? – I can’t answer
that, I don’t know why they did what they did. – (Eric)
Do you think that will
come out of the audit? – It’s quite possible,
and those are the answers that we are seeking is
why and what happened and how can we correct those
things that went wrong? – Could the Odyssey system be
replaced as a part of this? – I don’t necessarily think
that it’s all on Odyssey. I think it was procedural and
the operations of the office. We fortunately have
been able to go in and correct a lot of
things that have gone wrong within the last four months,
especially with Odyssey. And I know that
Mr. De Seussure had stated that he’s claiming that
was the entire reason why they didn’t
do what they did. But my, I don’t understand
how we can come in and within four months
we’re able to do certain things and
to pay out agencies and bill the State
and receive funding. – He was elected in
2014, Odyssey came in in 2016, so go ahead, Bill.
– 2016. – And what I’ve
seen over the years is that sometimes the judges,
the criminal court judges have a way of doing things
and an interpretation of how things are
done, and of course, they’re judges and they
run their courtrooms, and that sometimes
that can conflict with the way that the
clerk’s office does it and its reading of
what your duties are and what it’s required to do. Any indication that
that’s in play here, that the judges have
one way of doing it and the clerk’s office
was either abiding by that or had its own way of doing it? – Not to my knowledge. We have a really
good relationship with all the 10
criminal court judges, and the clerks work
well with the judges. And I don’t see that
that’s a conflict. Again, I think it’s basically
how the office was run and certain things
that were not done and the blaming of Odyssey. I think that’s mainly
what we’re looking at, so. – Go ahead.
– This is, your office covers some
very complex things that a lotta people,
even those who come to the court really
don’t think about. How complex is this part of
the criminal justice system, this very big part of the
criminal justice system? As you mentioned,
these are the records. – Right.
– This is what people rely on to say this
person went to court on this charge
and were acquitted or the charges were dropped
or they were convicted. How complex is this undertaking? – Relatively complex
because what we do is we do keep all the records,
we keep all the jackets. We also assign all the
cases to the judges. We also hold all the
property in evidence, which a lotta people don’t know, and we take in and we collect
all the fees and fines, which is a multi-million-dollar
transaction, and we deal with the expungements
and we do grand jury. And so it is pretty complex. There are a lot of moving parts to the Criminal
Court Clerk’s Office. – About, I mean, we talked
before about the budget being a bit of a mess,
but about how much money should or is the, I
guess, should your office be bringing in
every year, I mean? – Well, that’s hard
for me to answer only because I’ve been there
for a short amount of time and because it’s not
been done correctly for the last two years.
– Yeah. – So it’s difficult,
and it’s per case, so. – Is it $100 million,
is it $10 million, or is it somewhere
between, even just between those two numbers probably.
– It’s between there, yeah. – Okay, and that’s–
– And I think that the audit will be able to tell us how
much we should’ve received versus how much we
should’ve paid out, and I think the other concern
is if there was any payout that it was done incorrectly. So for example, if
the sheriff’s office was owed an amount of money, it could be not the correct
amount that was owed that was paid out, so I
think those are the types of things that the
audit is going to show. – And the audit will
be done by whom? – Watkins Uiberall
will be doing it. – An outside, private firm.
– After, yes, mm-hm. – Okay.
– But as I had stated, I think previously
the issue, too, is that we don’t have
any information to audit. So and what I mean by
that is because we had the Excel spreadsheet–
[Eric laughing] – (Eric)
I’m sorry, that kinda stopped me in my tracks.
– I know. – But keep going, keep going. – We didn’t have that unified
system that you can audit. So all of the information,
all the checks that may have been deposited,
the money that he referenced as “sitting on”, those
checks were deposited. However, there’s no
information as to where those checks went, so
what we’ve had to do is make copies of all
those physical checks. Those checks have to be
entered into the system, into Odyssey system.
– So, okay, so no, when you say no record,
it’s all goin’ into, I mean, one big
checking account. It’s not going in,
there wasn’t like a sort of a separate account.
– It’s like your personal checking account.
– Here’s our, here’s, yeah, and so here’s we’ve
got a problem, we don’t know where
this money’s goin’, we’re gonna put it in
a separate account, it’s all, there’s
money over there. It’s just all in there in the
checking account, which is also constantly moving.
– And some were not deposited. – Money’s going out–
– Right. – Money’s coming in,
so it’s not like it was a static sort of account
there of discrepancies in any sense.
– Well, there was no documentation as to
where that check went, so it was deposited, but we
don’t know if it was sent to somewhere else
or whose it was. I mean, there’s the
Excel spreadsheet that states, yes,
this was deposited, but there’s no reference
as to where it went. – Again, people throwing stuff at the screen right now,
those who are skeptical of government.
– Yeah. – How long will it
take for the audit, do you have any
sense of a time frame for all this?
– Well, I think it’s going to take about one to
two months to enter all the data that we
have that we can find. Once that’s completed,
then the forensic audit could take one to two months. – And about how much
will that audit cost? – It’s not costing us. Shelby County government
is providing that to us. It’s temp fees and,
but no, exactly, I’m not sure of the cost. – Right, okay, well, we’ll
come back to some of that I’m sure as we
kinda talk through, but I want, you
mentioned expungements. And we mentioned, this
is an elected position. – Yes.
– You impart some of your goals as an elected official. You talked about expungements.
– Yes. – And making it I think
easier or more efficient for people to get expungement. Let’s back up and say
what is an expungement for people who don’t know? – An expungement is
basically an erasing a record if you are eligible, in
the simplest of terms. – A criminal record.
– A criminal record, right, through the Criminal
Court Clerk’s Office. – And those are,
does this all go back to the 2012 law that, or
I mean, there are laws about what can be expunged
and what can’t, so– – Exactly, there’s a lot of
eligibility requirements. It’s hard for me to go
down and list all of them, but that’s one of
the things that we do is we identify and
see if the individual is even eligible
for expungement. – Right, I mean, I’m, this
is actually off your website. The law that went in
in 2012 was, you know, a person, you’re eligible
for an expungement if you’ve never been convicted
of a criminal offense including federal offenses,
offenses in other states, at least five years have
elapsed since the completion of a sentence imposed,
the person has fulfilled all the requirements
of the sentence. This is not about expunging
some, a murder or a– – Any heinous crime.
– Any sort of, what we would, yeah, loosely call
a heinous crime. This is about expunging
driving on a suspended license. – Sure.
– I mean, that’s, those are the ones that
come up often on this show– – Right.
– And stories, right. – Right.
– About how many expungements does your office do every year? – Well, and it’s not that,
we process the expungements. – (Eric)
How many do you process, yeah. – So the issue was that the
previous administration, this was not a priority to
them at all, unfortunately. So my understanding
is in the last year of the previous administrations, they expunged maybe
about 600 expungements. We are already close to that
within the last four months. So my goal, and one of
the things I talked about when campaigning, is to
have an expungement court, because I think that this
offers a streamlined way of having individuals
come in, and it reduces the confusion of eligibility,
and we would have everyone sat in one, it’s
sort of a one-stop shop, is my dream to have
an expungement court. – Bill.
– And we’ve also talked on this show about the efforts of then-State Representative
Raumesh Akbari– – Yes.
– Who’s now a State Senator who actually worked
to drop the fee which was more than $400. – Yes, which was a
barrier, to say the least, for people to get expungements. – So are you, in
doing the expungements that you’ve done since
taking office in September, what is the level of
interest among people who have been through the
criminal justice system in having this done,
and are they more aware of it now than perhaps
they have been before? – I don’t think that
people are aware as much as they need to be,
but I can say that in October, we had the Restoration Saturday, which we did in combination
with General Sessions as well as the DA,
and we had, gosh, I would say maybe
1,000 people show up, and there’s definitely
an interest. And I think there’s
some confusion as to eligibility requirements
and things like that, and it was also
reinstatement of license, but you can see
that there’s a need. And when you look at a need,
with the expungement court, I can say that Knox County
has an expungement court, and it’s been up and running
for about a year and half, and they have
expunged 23,000 cases. That’s pretty
significant amount. When you’re looking
at Shelby County, and we’re only expunging
less than 1,000 in a year, I think we can do better. – And we’re a county two or
three, four sizes, and some– – We’re the largest county in the state of Tennessee.
– Yeah, much larger than Knox. – Right, mm-hm.
– Right. – Do you hear from people
who encounter the barriers that not having the
expungement that they encounter along the way, is that
kinda the first alert? Because the criminal
justice system has to be overwhelming to
someone who goes in there the first, maybe even
the third or fourth time. – Sure.
– Goes through that system. So this thing happens, they’re
convicted of some offense or plead guilty, and
then they encounter all the court costs and
fees that come with that, and then they complete whatever
they’re supposed to do, and then they go
to apply for a job or go for any number of
things, and it’s like, oh, you’ve been convicted.
– Right, right. And that’s a barrier,
and that’s a real issue. And so that’s what we’re
trying to minimize. What we want to
do is offer people an opportunity for
a second chance, and many don’t know
that they’re eligible. And they do go and
they apply for jobs or they apply for loans
or they apply for school and are unable to get
in or receive that loan or receive a job because
they do have a record. And they may not even realize that they are eligible
for expungements. And so this offers
an opportunity for them to come in and actually
see if they are eligible. So that’s the great
thing about it is offering an opportunity
for advancement for them. – What would it cost to set up an expungement
court, give or take? – Actually, there
shouldn’t be a cost. If we can utilize a judge
and a courtroom, maybe. And I’m not talking about
a standalone courtroom, not like Veterans Court
or Mental Health Court or Drug Court. This would just be one or
two days during the week in the afternoon for maybe
like two to four to open it up, and everybody would
already be there. So the DA’s office
would be there, we would be there, the
judge would be there, and we would see if
they were eligible. And if they are, we
can work on having them fill out the paperwork,
and then the DA’s office can review their
eligibility and then send it to the judge to sign it. – And the judge does
a regular docket otherwise when
they’re not dealing with the expungements.
– Exactly, this would be, you know, they would,
and a couple judges have stated that they are
very interested in doing this. So I think I have them
on board, which is great. – And what is it, if I’m
trying to get an expungement, does it cost me money? – It does cost that fee.
– Oh, I’m sorry, okay. – Mm-hm, yeah, yeah.
– How much was the fee again? – I think it’s down
to $180, I believe. – Okay.
– From the $400-and-something– – Right.
– It used to be, which was a barrier
within itself. – This, before we switch
to talking a little bit about city council
with Bill here, briefly, yours is a
partisan election. You were a Democrat.
– Yes. – This issue of expungement,
have you seen support just among Democrats or among
Democrats and Republicans? – I think that there’s
a great interest in expungement no
matter your party, because I think that
there are Republicans and Democrats that may have
a record that want expunged. So when you’re looking
at justice reform, I think that everybody agrees
something needs to change, you just may be looking at
it through a different lens. And Democrats, I think,
lean more towards offering people a second chance, so they’re more in favor of it, but I certainly have
not had any backlash or opposition from
Republicans with this idea. And actually, the Criminal
Court Clerk in Knox County is a Republican.
– Right. – And he’s done this. – Yeah, and we’ve had
an increasing number of Republicans and
people of all sorts coming on talking about this, talking about
people who have not, not the heinous crimes,
but other people, to give them a chance
if they’re trying to get their life on track.
– Exactly. – To make this more efficient. I’m gonna switch, I’m gonna
leave you here for a second– – Sure.
– And we’re gonna switch and talk, Bill,
about city council which managed after
a couple of votes and a couple of weeks
and a couple of, probably a few lost tempers, to fill the appointments
of three openings. Let’s talk about
who was appointed, some familiar faces
and some surprises, if people weren’t paying
attention earlier this week. – A very surprising end
to what’s essentially been a two-month controversy
and stalemate with I think around 112
separate roll call votes all told not counting
this past Tuesday. So the council’s back up
to full strength at 13. You have three new members. You have Gerre Currie, a bank
vice president in Whitehaven who is the new District
6 city council member at least through
the end of 2019. You also have Cheyenne
Johnson, who is the former Shelby County property assessor, who is the Super District
8 council member, and Sherman Greer, who is with Southwest Tennessee
Community College in government affairs there, a assistant to the
president of the college, who is the District 1
city council member. A few significant
things here in addition to being up to full
strength on the council now, you have four
African-American women on the Memphis City
Council for the first time in its 50-year history. For the first time since 1972,
a member of the Ford family does not hold the District
6 city council seat. And for the first time
in the 50-year history of the Memphis City Council, you have eight
African-Americans on the body. – And that is out of total? – Out of 13 members.
– Out of total 13. Are all appointments
through next October? – Through the, well, they
serve through the end of this year when the
winners in the October city elections will take
office in January of 2020. And as people are
thinking, are these folks going to run in the
elections in 2019, all three have said they
do not know at this point. – Which means they’re going to. And then we have a new
chair of this council? – Yes, Kemp Conrad, who
is in his final term on the council
because of term limits is the new chairman
for the year. The vice chairman
is Patrice Robinson. – And this is his
second time as– – Second time as
chairman of the body. – Okay, thank you
for that update. We have more obviously
on the site about that. Thank you, Heidi
Kuhn, for being here. – Thank you.
– We’ll try to get you back as you get through this
process of the audit. And thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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