Committee questions fine- paying method

Council members yesterday said the county finance director and prosecuting attorney misused taxpayer dollars by covering $1,690 in court fines incurred by county prosecutors.

Fifth Circuit Judge Kathleen Watanabe sanctioned the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney three times since August 2007 — two $500 fines for county prosecutor no-shows and $690 when the prosecutors failed to dismiss a case before a jury was called.

Prosecuting Attorney Craig De Costa and Finance Director Wally Rezentes Jr. said the county footed the bill because the fines were specifically addressed to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, not the individuals, and the payments had to be made in a timely fashion.

“We felt that payment of the sanction was prudent,” Rezentes said.

But Councilwoman Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho, who brought up the issue during yesterday’s Committee on the Whole meeting, said nowhere in the office’s budget were sanctions or fines included as approved expenditures.

The office or the finance director should have gone to council for approval, she said.

All three fines were paid from the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney’s “other commodities” fund, which is defined in the current fiscal year budget as court charges for videotapes, CDs, transcripts and conflict cases, as well as travel for witnesses and victims not covered by the state.

Rezentes took issue with Iseri-Carvalho’s interpretation that the funds can only go toward the specified uses; he said some line items in the budget don’t have text at all.

“It’s not the intent of the text to describe every particular use,” Rezentes said.

Iseri-Carvalho and Councilman Mel Rapozo balked at the notion that the budget process was not meant to define uses for county funds. Both said when line items are intended as catch-alls for miscellaneous and related expenses, they include such provisos.

“What authority do you have to disregard the text?” she asked Rezentes.

“… The budget is law.”

The finance director said past budgets included line items for court charges and that a few years ago those expenditures were consolidated under “other commodities.”

Iseri-Carvalho, an attorney who plans to run for county prosecutor in the general election this fall, countered that fines and sanctions are not “court charges.”

The council members in attendance yesterday — all but Councilman Tim Bynum, whose absence was excused — agreed that the questions raised would be addressed at a future council meeting, likely on May 28.

Councilman Jay Furfaro, not a Committee of the Whole member, offered his opinion that fines — no matter the department — should trigger upper management review.

“The sting should be on the individual,” Furfaro said.

De Costa, a department head, noted that he verbally reprimanded the individuals involved and “addressed the circumstances that led to these sanctions.”

For his part, Rapozo said it was disturbing that funds were spent for an unapproved use, calling it a “clear attempt to mislead” the council.

He said he’ll be studying the next fiscal year’s budget, which has yet to be approved by the full council, one more time to find any other conflicts.

“I plan to go over this budget with a fine-tooth comb,” he said. “Expect some amendments.”

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