Legislative Audit has released its review -- a scorching one -- of Pulaski Circuit Judge Willard Proctor's Cycle Breakers probation program.
The report details constitutional, statutory and ethical faults in Proctor's operation of the program, including receiving benefits personally from fees assessed on people on probation.
Rather than use the state's probation office, Proctor hires his own staff and directs probationers to Cycle Breakers, a program he helped establish and runs with fees the probationers pay. It's had little public oversight and Proctor for a time even refused FOI requests for records of the program, though it clearly operated with publicly generated fees. It became controversial when the nonprofit arm of the program bought a building near an elementary school. That set off a fuss from parents, who feared the presence of probationers near the school. But that fuss led to a closer look at the program itself. Not a minute too soon.
The audit concludes that there's little division between the judge and any of the elements of his program. His argument that there's a Cycle Breakers probation program and a nonprofit Cycle Breakers is essentially a fiction. The audit also said the judge had established fees in his court without statutory authority. It said probation fees that have gone to the private Cycle Breakers Inc. are an unconstitutional appropriation of public funds. The summary also said:
The existing relationship the Judge, Court, and Court employees have with Cycle Breakers, Inc.appears to conflict with state laws relating to conflict of interest and ethics provisions.Numerous instances occurred in which the Judge, Court, and Court employees received financial benefits from Cycle Breakers, Inc.
The report details spending of money generated for the program on such things as a staff trip to Memphis, unauthorized extra pay to public employees and reimbursements for the judge himself, including for Internet service and other expenses. It recommends a variety of corrective actions and the report was sent to, among others, the Pulaski prosecuting attorney.
It shouldn't surprise you to know that severeal county officials were complicit in allowing this wholly unauthorized operation to rake in tens of thousands of dollars with virtually no oversight, accountability or legality. The Quorum Court, county judge and county attorney -- among others -- failed to blow the whistle, though they had ample opportunity. The judge and county attorney are too busy, I guess, trying to protect the dirty e-mails of an embezzling county comptroller.
The audit includes a letter of response in whichProctor proposes a couple of procedural changes and says ordinances he's proposed should clear up problems. (We wrote about those ordinances this week.) This proposed fix is clearly insufficient, not only because additional investigations, including criminal ones, seem in order. I hope the Quorum Court has better sense than to buy his cosmetic fix. However well-intentioned the judge might be on helping people who need help, he needs to shut this probation operation and let the state handle it. He can sentence defendants to treatment and they can receive it on terms similar to those offered in every other court in Arkansas, not through a personally controlled, thinly disguised political operation and sump fund that spins off fringe benefits for the judge and his staff.
Prosecutor Larry Jegley said he hadn't seen the report yet but intended to review it carefully.
UPDATE: Judge Proctor returned my call. He said he firmly believes he's done nothing illegal in the operation of the program and that the changes he's proposed should satisfy criticisms in the report.
"Obviously I'm disappointed," he said of the report. "I don't agree with it. A lot of the things are subject to interpretation."
He said he believed "the best thing to do would be to make corrective changes that would solve any issues they've raised." He said he'd press the Quorum Court to approve the ordinances he's proposed.
A thought: Do you think the state Judicial Discipline Commission could take a break from persecuting Wendell Griffen for making speeches to take a look at this?