Susquehanna County 2020 audit report findings detail payments made by Register/Recorder to family member

The Susquehanna County Courthouse was built in the Greek Revival style – one of the architectural styles prominent in the Montrose Historic District which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. STAFF PHOTO/STACI WILSON

The Susquehanna County 2020 Audit Report detailed several findings related to the Register and Recorder’s office questioning payments made by the elected official to a family member in 2020. The report was filed earlier this month in the Susquehanna County Prothonotary’s office.

The county auditors confirmed that a check from Susquehanna County Register and Recorder Michelle Estabrook’s personal account, in the amount of $12,000, was deposited on Jan. 28 into the office’s Records Improvement Fund, with the check noting it was for “reimbursement.”

In the 2020 audit report, the county auditors called for a surcharge of $10,000 be paid. They noted the additional $2,000 will be reflected as paid on the 2021 report which will be filed later this year.

According to the report, the Register and Recorder’s Office general fund old account had not balanced since July 2018. “It was determined by the Auditors, Commissioners, and Register and Recorder that outside help was warranted,” reads the report. Two people worked on reconciling the account, as well as all accounts in the Register and Recorder’s office for 2019 and 2020.

The county commissioners contracted out to finish the row office accounts accurately for those two years, including the Register and Recorder’s Office Records Improvement account.

“When working on the year of 2020 the contractor brought to our attention that 10 checks were drawn out and paid to Christine Lee in the amount of $1,000 each for a total of $10,000. Upon investigation it was determined that the individual was a family member of the Register and Recorder and had not been approved by the County Commissioners as required by the Records Improvement Act. It was found no scope of work or detailed reports of findings from the work existed,” reads the auditors 2020 findings.

The auditors also noted that they had not been able to complete a thorough and complete investigation “due to the obstruction of the county in not providing the necessary resources through funding for legal counsel to competently prepare.”

The report documents that on Jan. 3, 2020, the county’s Register and Recorder Michelle Estabrook wrote a letter to the county commissioners, advising them that she had hired an independent auditor to help correct the office’s Quicken program, and enclosed an invoice for work completed by Lee, advising the commissioners that payment would be made via the office’s Records Improvement fund.

That request was placed on the agenda for the Jan. 8, 2020 meeting, but removed from the final agenda after the commissioners discovered that Lee was a member of Estabrook’s family.

According to supporting documents filed with the report, the commissioners informed Estabrook that that would not support hiring a family member but would support “a local or independent auditor or accountant.” However, no documentary evidence was produced by the commissioners that supported Estabrook was made aware of that decision.

In February 2021, the county auditors issued a letter to the commissioners seeking documentation for the authorization of $8,000 that had been paid to Lee. Estabrook then provided a report from Lee, dated April 12, 2021, explaining her efforts to reconcile a negative balance in two of the Register and Recorder Office accounts. Lee also submitted a resignation on that date.

Estabrook provided the county with a total of 12 $1,000 invoices from Lee and accounting reports that indicated payments were made to Lee from the Improvement Account funds.

According to the documents filed, there was no evidence that Estabrook secured the appropriate authority from the commissioners to engage the services of Lee, and was not “in accordance with regular county budgeting, contractive and procurement practices,” as outlined by law.

Also included in the auditors’ report is a letter dated Feb. 23, 2021 from the county commissioners’ office to Pennsylvania Auditor General Timothy DeFoor, asking for an investigation into Register and Recorder Estabrook’s financial accounts, noting that “questionable transactions that have taken place.”

The letter from the commissioners briefly detailed steps that had taken place since 2019, including offering assistance for an internal employee and outside accounting firm. “The outside accounting firm was rebuilding 2020 when questionable transactions were discovered,” reads the letter to DeFoor.

The letter also reads: “Also, during this entire period, the Register and Recorder had many opportunities to inform the Commissioners that she had hired someone after she was told not to… Finally, there is no evidence that the services paid for were supplied, as the evidence shows that the Commissioners had to hire other individuals to complete the books.”


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