SusqCo Auditors seek time, legal help to pursue possible ‘improper expenses’ in one row office

The county auditors squared off with the county commissioners at a hearing in court on Friday, as the auditors requested the court grant them more time to file the 2020 audit report.

The audit report was due to be filed on July 1, but in testimony on Friday, County Auditor Rick Ainey told the court that an extension was needed because there may be “unqualified or improper expenses” from one office that may lead to the auditors issuing a finding and assess a surcharge.

But the auditors believe they need additional legal help – beyond what would be covered by the $600 annual retainer – in order to navigate the filing process, Ainey explained on the stand to the auditors’ office solicitor, Michael Briechle.

In the event a surcharge is assessed by the auditors, both the person assessed the charged as well as the county commissioners have the right to appeal that decision in the Court of Common Pleas.

County Solicitor Francis O’Connor questioned the relevancy of legal fees to the need for an extension.

Earlier this year, the commissioners approved entering into a contract with Briechle to provide additional legal services for the auditors which would include issuing subpoenas and holding depositions. That contract agreement, however, was later rescinded by the commissioners.

Ainey told the court that Commissioner Alan Hall told the auditors that the solicitor salary for the row office was capped at $600 per year. He said the move limited the auditors’ ability to complete an investigation of potential misappropriation of funds.

O’Connor suggested that the auditors could file the report that include the other accounts and flag that there could be an issue with one account.

Ainey, however, said it was his understanding that the report filing needed to be an entire report for the county. In the past, county auditors had filed a DCED report in lieu of the full report which was requested by the county commissioners for 2020.

In the testimony, it was made clear that other state agencies have become involved in the matter. The commissioners had referred the matter to the county district attorney’s office, which was then sent on to the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General when Susquehanna County DA Marion O’Malley recused herself from the matter.

County auditors Robert DeLuca and Richard Suracci also took the stand and said they would have offered the same testimony as Ainey.

DeLuca said he believed the auditors require further legal assistance beyond the work paid as a retainer. “I believe we need more and it’s not going to come for free,” he said.

Commissioner Hall also took the stand. He told the court that the solicitor salary for all row offices was set at $600.

President Judge Jason Legg noted that, in other matters, the county did pay for the attorney fees in other cases involving elected officials.

Hall also said that nothing in the county code would keep the auditors from filing multiple reports, as opposed to a single comprehensive report for a year.

Joel Wolff, an attorney for the Office of the Susquehanna County Register/Recorder, was also in the courtroom for the hearing.

Judge Legg granted a 120-day extension to the auditors to file the 2020 report and advised the parties in the courtroom to, “Sit down at the table and figure this out.”

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