PA Auditor General’s office to conduct audit of Register/Recorder accounts; county auditors issue 2021 findings

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 Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General is conducting a compliance audit of the Susquehanna County Recorder of Deeds, Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans’ Court offices in order to determine whether the state’s portion of costs and fees have been properly assessed, collected and turned in to the state, according to an Audit Engagement Letter, dated June 24, that has been obtained by the Susquehanna County Independent.

According to the letter, the audit will also determine if the “office holder took appropriate corrective action to address the finding contained in our prior report.” The Auditor General’s Office audit will cover the period of Jan. 1, 2017 through Dec. 31, 2020 for the Register and Recorder’s office.

Susquehanna County Auditors filed their 2021 audit report in the Prothonotary’s office last week and issued multiple findings in five Register/Recorder office accounts.

In the office’s “General Fund New Account,” county auditors found that for a majority of the months there were ledger adjustments made in the amount of $387.51 at the end of the month to reconcile “book with bank.”

The auditors suggested a greater attempt be made to find the discrepancies in the bookkeeping.

They also questioned why the new general fund account does not receive interest, but the prior general fund account did collect interest.

In the General Fund Old Account, the auditors noted that there are three outstanding checks from 2019 and 2020. Those funds should have been escheated after three years, according to the auditors.

The county auditors also noted that there were months where the prior month’s closing balance was not the same as the next month’s opening balance, with no documentation provided “as to what and why.”

In a carryover from the 2020 report on the Records Improvement Account, the auditors listed two $1,000 checks paid to Christine Lee, adding to the 10 $1,000 checks paid to her in 2020, for a total of $12,000.

The $12,000 was repaid to the account with a personal check written by Register/Recorder Michelle Estabrook on Jan. 28 of this year. The check noted it was for “reimbursement.”

The Susquehanna County 2020 Audit Report detailed several findings related to the Register and Recorder’s office questioning payments made by Estabrook to a family member in 2020.

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 2020 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.

In the 2021 report, the auditors reported three outstanding deposits to the Records Improvement Fund: $84, dated May 20, 2019; $228, dated Dec. 18, 2020; and $111, dated Feb. 16, 2021.

“There has been no explanation as to how these deposits can be outstanding for this length of time,” the auditors wrote in their findings.

The auditors noted the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission found Estabrook to be in violation of three sections of the ethics act regarding the office’s Records Improvement Fund account.

On May 24, the PA State Ethics Commission found that Estabrook violated the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act when she entered into a contract with her daughter to provide an audit for the Susquehanna Cunty Register and Recorder’s Office.

A violation of the act also happened when the contract she entered into with her daughter on behalf of the Register and Recorder’s Office was valued at more than $500 without an open and public process, and when she had the overall responsibility for the implementation of the contract.

The third violation of the PA Ethics Act occurred when Estabrook authorized those payments to her daughter by issuing and signing checks.

The county auditors made numerous requests for the submission of the Inheritance Account in the office of the Register & Recorder for audit. The account had been unknown to the county auditors until they first received it as part of the 2020 audit.

“We have received partial submissions for the first four months of 2021,” wrote the auditors, who also questioned at $50 monthly bank fee for the account.

The Municipal Account showed outstanding deposits from May 2020 ($1,343.33) and December 2020 ($2,811.46).

“Multiple inquiries have been made directly to the Register and Recorder to explain/reconcile but no explanation has been received and no reconciliation has been made,” reads the auditors’ finding.

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