County eyeing JP office over unused funds

BROWNSVILLE — An unannounced cash-on-hand audit of Justice of the Peace offices in August revealed nearly $18,000 in undeposited checks and money orders in Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Benito Ochoa’s Port Isabel office.

Cameron County Lead Auditor Martha Galarza told county commissioners during a special meeting last Monday that investigators found 226 checks and money orders totaling $17,700 that dated from 2001 to 2017 in Ochoa’s office. The unannounced cash count was a limited audit, so “not all discrepancies or control weaknesses would be detected,” Galarza told commissioners.

Although Galarza conducted cash counts on 10 JP offices, none of those offices neared the scale of undeposited funds found in Ochoa’s office, according to the audit.

In the report, Galarza singles out two specific checks in her findings, including a check written to Ochoa from South Padre Island attorney Larry Mark Polsky on Aug. 21, the day before the audit, with the amount left blank, and a $100 check from Jan. 29, 2007, with the payee left blank.

Galarza also discovered that checks and money orders found with citations had not been entered into the system, along with checks and money orders mixed with miscellaneous items throughout the office. Also, there were unopened mail items found throughout the office and mail found without a receipt date stamp.

Ochoa said last week that he takes full responsibility.

“I’m not going to blame the clerk,” Ochoa said.

According to Ochoa, there were 144 checks the auditor found related to civil cases that were not deposited. These are more recent, Ochoa said.

“We didn’t deposit them because it’s very hard to deposit them in one day,” Ochoa said, adding that the checks have since been deposited.

Some of the older checks that were never deposited were returned to defendants, Ochoa said, adding that there were checks that were in a file that his present clerks were not aware of.

“We’re going to return them back, and I’ll be glad to reimburse if I’m liable to the county,” Ochoa said.

As for that check from Polsky with the amount left blank, Ochoa said his office couldn’t deposit the check because some paperwork was not filed correctly.

“That is why we didn’t deposit. We sent that check back to Mr. Polsky. There was a lawsuit that was not filed,” Ochoa said. “He had to put the amount. We cannot put the amount, he has to do it. I think he just forgot or he thought we could put the amount, but we can’t because it’s his check, not the county’s.”

Ochoa said the undeposited funds are just an accident.

“These are honest mistakes. And they’re corrected. My clerk knows that from now on, they need to deposit as soon as possible,” Ochoa said. “And another thing is we’re short-handed. And we still need another clerk.”

He said he plans to ask commissioners court for help.

And while Ochoa said the mistakes are corrected, Cameron County commissioners are taking the audit report seriously, even spending an unknown amount of time during a two-hour long executive session talking about the audit report.

However, commissioners did briefly discuss the audit report, for about 15 minutes, in public during the meeting after Galarza gave her report.

Commissioner David A. Garza, who declined to comment for this story, referring all questions to the county’s legal department and to County Administrator David Garcia, made the strongest comments.

“This seems to be a yearly recurring issue. I’ve been here 17 years, and I don’t think there’s ever been a year that goes by and this issue doesn’t come up,” Garza said. “Evidently, whatever we are doing is not getting across to these folks. There’s not many new people that don’t already know what the requirements are.”

Garza was adamant during the meeting, repeatedly asking Cameron County’s legal department what his responsibility is when he, as a commissioner, receives an eye-popping audit report like the one from Ochoa’s office.

“My question is real simple. At what point do I, as a commissioner of this court, having the responsibility of oversight of these offices, become responsible for not taking any further action anytime an audit is brought to my attention that there’s a deficiency in?” Garza said. “Simple. What is my responsibility?”

A county lawyer replied that if a JP doesn’t make progress on the auditor’s recommendation or isn’t listening to or complying with it, then there could be a removal issue under the government code.

After the executive session ended, Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino was reluctant to comment.

“I really can’t discuss it since there’s an audit report,” Trevino said.

County Administrator Garcia, to whom Commissioner Garza referred questions, didn’t have much to say either.

“We’re going to work to try to see how we can improve and not have these types of things happen, you know, where things are just not getting done,” Garcia said. “From an administration and commissioners court standpoint, that’s all we can do, is make sure that we are providing the resources so that they don’t have situations like this occur.”