State auditor: No circuit clerk cash transferred

Published 12:04 pm Friday, February 10, 2012

None of the money the state auditor’s office ordered Warren County Circuit Clerk Shelly Ashley-Palmertree in September to transfer to the county has been placed in an account set up for that purpose, state and county officials said Thursday.

“It does appear that the money has not been transferred,” said Lisa Shoemaker, spokeswoman for State Auditor Stacey Pickering.

“That investigation is still an open investigation,” Shoemaker said. “There will not be a closing until all the requests we have made are completed.”

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The $199,588 that Pickering ordered transferred five months ago represents the total of amounts Ashley-Palmertree and her father, Larry Ashley, whom she succeeded in office in 2004, withdrew from criminal and civil court statutory fee accounts in excess of what state law allowed, Shoemaker said in September.

Thursday, Shoemaker said the amount is closer to $138,000, but could not provide details of the change.

In addition, at least $340,000 remains in dispute in the state auditor’s review of fee accounting practices in the circuit clerk’s office. The records being reviewed date to at least 2006, according to annual county audit reports on the auditor’s website.

Pickering’s office said in February 2011 that fee practices in the office were under investigation. Ashley-Palmertree, however, has said the term is inaccurate and the effort has been a cooperative one between her office and the state auditor’s.

With some exceptions, state law caps a circuit clerk’s annual salary at $90,000. County audits have repeatedly cited Ashley-Palmertree, 41, for collecting fees in excess of the limit.

Along with the demand that Ashley-Palmertree transfer the escrow funds, Pickering requested that she hire an independent accounting firm to audit financial records of the Warren County Circuit Clerk’s Office to resolve the dispute.

That has been done, said Ashley-Palmertree’s attorney, James L. “Buck” Penley Jr., but declined to name the firm and declined comment on Ashley-Palmertree’s accounting practices.

Repeated attempts to reach Ashley-Palmertree were unsuccessful.

“There were some accounting things that were going to be done, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Penley said.

With regard to the escrow account, Shoemaker said the auditor’s office contacted Penley on Thursday and requested that about $138,000 be transferred to the account immediately.

County Administrator John Smith also said he knows of no money being transferred from Ashley-Palmertree’s escrow account.

“I am not aware of any money that was transferred in that escrow account,” Smith said. “No one in the courthouse has been made aware of it.”

Penley said the money is still in an escrow account that remains untapped and did not indicate when the money would be transferred to the county.

“The money has been in an account that’s never been touched for over five years,” Penley said.

Ashley-Palmertree was elected to a third four-year term in November.

The auditor’s office has not made clear what consequences might be forthcoming, and no deadline has been made public for the cases to be resolved.