Bradford County commissioners sue Prothonotary Sally Vaughn Commissioners say Vaughn improperly used county funds to renovate her office
TOWANDA - The Bradford County commissioners filed a lawsuit this week accusing the county prothonotary of improperly using county funds to renovate the Prothonotary's Office.
According to the lawsuit, Prothonotary Sally Vaughn renovated her office in September using $18,000 from a fund that could only legally be used to make her office more automated.
Moreover, Vaughn had previously agreed to use the money in the fund to pay for a $35,000 contract that the commissioners entered into in December 2011 with Information Management Resources Ltd. (IMR) of Harrisburg to convert microfilm-based records in her office to computer-based records, and the $18,000 withdrawal leaves nowhere near enough money in the fund to pay for the contract, Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller said.
Vaughn "had agreed to use the money from the automation fund to satisfy the agreement that the commissioners entered into and then she turned around and used the money to renovate her office, which has nothing to do with (creating) efficiencies in her office," Miller said.
The microfilm conversion has yet to get under way, according to the lawsuit, which was filed on Monday in the Court of Common Pleas of Bradford County.
"I don't think I did anything wrong," Vaughn said in an interview on Friday in which she rebutted all of the lawsuit's accusations. "If I did do something wrong, I'm sorry."
The lawsuit also states that Vaughn had no legal right to hire a contractor to undertake the renovations, since only the county commissioners have the authority to enter into such contracts.
Furthermore, the lawsuit also states that Vaughn failed to get price quotes from three different contractors for the renovation project, as is required under county code for renovation projects above $10,000.
However, Bradford County Fiscal Director Joan Sanderson said that Vaughn was not required to get three quotes for the renovation project, since the contractor who was hired, Avail Business Systems of Johnstown, already had been hired through a contract with the state.
The state had sought bids as part of the process of hiring Avail, and counties can use or "piggyback" on the state contract without having to seek bids or quotes themselves, Sanderson said.
Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko said that the commissioners are having trouble working with Vaughn.
He said the Bradford County commissioners have excellent working relationships with all of the other elected Bradford County officials, from the county treasurer to the county judges.
"The only one we can't work with is her (Vaughn)," McLinko said.
"I have tried for 10 years to work with her (Vaughn)," McLinko said. "Never have I worked with anyone more difficult than her."
Vaughn said she is "100 percent sure" that the automation fund could be used for the renovations, which she said consisted of purchasing and installing a few cabinets in the public-service area of the office and creating "privacy partitions" that separate members of the public from the clerks who serve them.
Automation funds can be used, for example, to purchase counters that have computers on them, and all of the cabinets will have computers and printers on them, she said. To save desk space, computer monitors are mounted on the privacy partitions, she said.
Moreover, the renovations were needed to accommodate the planned installation of a $186,500 computer-based system for managing the records of civil cases in the Prothonotary's Office, said Vaughn, who added that the installation of the new management system is a much higher priority for her than $35,000 microfilm project, which involves converting older microfilm records to computer-based ones.
Vaughn explained that the current records management system for civil cases uses a 30-year-old Vax mainframe computer, and the county's IT department is worried that the computer will break and be unfixable.
"They don't make parts for it anymore because it is 30 years old," she said.
The privacy partitions are needed because the clerks in the public service area will be working with documents, such as PFAs and court-sealed documents, which the public should not be viewing or be in a position to walk off with by mistake, Vaughn said.
She said she tried initially to carry out one part of the renovations by requesting that the county maintenance department install privacy partitions made out of sheetrock. However, the commissioners would not agree to the sheetrock installation, Vaughn said.
As for whether she had the authority to hire a contractor, Vaughn said: "I'm not sure exactly (what the rules are) on that. I know I was told (that the commissioners) would not do anything for me (as far as doing the renovations), and I knew that to move forward with the case management system, the renovations needed to be done."
Under state law, the money in the automation fund is to be used in a prothonotary's office for either automation or for updates to existing automation, the lawsuit states. The money that comes into the automation fund consists of $5 fees that lawyers or the public pay to file certain types of documents in the Prothonotary's Office.
When the commissioners entered into a contract with IMR, there was approximately $27,000 in the automation fund, the lawsuit states. In addition to using the $27,000 in the fund, Vaughn was to have made installment payments to IMR from the fund until the $35,000 contract was paid for, the lawsuit states.
The fund is replenished by approximately $1,000 in fees that are deposited into the fund each month, Vaughn said.
Vaughn said the renovation actually cost $15,405. She said there is currently almost $22,000 in the automation fund.
Vaughn said she spoke this week with James E. Kinzer, a representative of IMR, who said that his company is "O.K." with the pace that the county is proceeding with the microfilm conversion project.
She said the conversion project is now getting under way, and she said that with the fund growing each month from fees, the county will be able to pay for the $35,000 contract within a year.
The estimated total cost of the microfilm conversion project is $120,000, but the commissioners have only committed the county to pay for the first $35,000 phase of it, chief County Clerk Michelle Shedden said.
Through the lawsuit, the commissioners are seeking to gain control of the automation fund until the $35,000 microfilm project is paid for, as well as including any additional phases of the project that the county enters into, according to a copy of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks to enjoin Vaughn from spending money in the automation fund on "non-automation expenses," to enjoin her from entering into contracts for renovations, and to require her to "follow the proper bidding process and/or reimburse the county for any inappropriate expenditures made in violation of the county code."
The lawsuit also seeks to have Vaughn "pay for damages and costs or such other relief as (the court) deems necessary and proper including payment of costs incurred by the county, including filing fees and costs of service," the lawsuit states.
The commissioners were not aware that the renovations were taking place until they were "pretty much done," Miller said.
James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.