Image: 410th District Judge Jennifer Robin during her presentation to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court on April 10, 2018. Standing next to Judge Robin is Nathan Jensen, Director of the Montgomery County Office of Court Administration.
Conroe, April 16 – 410th District Judge Jennifer Robin made a remarkable presentation to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court on April 10, 2018, in which she asked the Court to approve an “external assessment” for County Auditor Phyllis Martin. What made the presentation so remarkable was that Robin’s outstanding degree of preparation made such a contrast to the bumbling work of the Commissioners Court and County Department heads who usually appear publicly during the Commissioners Court meetings.
Robin explained that her presentation was on behalf of the entire Board of District Judges who have begun to take very seriously their duty of oversight of the County Auditor and her job functions. The Board of District Judges has a statutory duty to appoint and oversee County finances, through their management and control of the County Auditor. The Board sets the County Auditor’s annual budget, although the Commissioners Court often tinkers with that budget through budget amendments never reviewed with the District Judges first.
In early summer, the Board of District Judges will review and determine the annual budget for the County Auditor. In recent years, the County Auditor’s office has mushroomed into a bloated bureacracy of 26 full-time employees and a $2,260,554 annual budget. Amazingly, the County Auditor is not a CPA. Montgomery County is the largest County in Texas that does not have a County Auditor (or second-ranking person) who is a Certified Public Accountant.
Martin’s County Auditor’s Office has failed to follow Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, because she does not follow the rules pertaining to independence and conflicts of interest in the United States Government Accountability Office’s “Yellow Book” publication, which is the formal version of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) for government entities such as the County government.
Additionally, the Board of District Judges will determine whether to renew Martin’s 2-year contract around October 1, 2018. The Board could renew the contract or terminate it with the idea of hiring a CPA to replace Martin.
Common practice is for governmental entities to obtain an “external assessment” ever three years approximately from an independent group of accountants to determine whether the auditor has complied with GAAP. The problem with the proposed external assessment that the Board of District Judges is proposing, however, is that it is likely to rely heavily on information which Martin herself will provide to the outside assessors. As such, the external assessment may fail to focus on independence and conflict of interest issues that have so greatly harmed the finance and accounting functions of the Montgomery County government.
Montgomery County does utilize an outside audit firm (in 2017, it was Weaver & Tidwell) but that outside audit is limited, because (1) it fails to identify compliance with internal control standards, and (2) it is only a test audit and not a full financial audit of the County’s finances, as Judge Robin explained to the Commissioners Court. The Montgomery County government has not had a financial audit for at least two decades.
Robin told the Commissioners Court, “We don’t believe the report [from Weaver & Tidwell] is sufficient to be able to know the performance of our County Auditor.” She further explained, “The financial audit doesn’t take into account her [Martin’s] compliance with her job duties by statute.”
Robin contacted Weaver & Tidwell’s accounting contact who recommended an “external assessment” such as from the Institute of Internal Auditors. Robin asked the Commissioners Court for authorization up to $30,000 to obtain an external assessment of Martin’s work, although the Board of District Judges will determine the best alternative for obtain such an assessment in a cost effective manner.
Robin noted that each audit organization must have an external peer review at least once every three years in order to comply with GAAP. Robin said that Montgomery County’s Auditor’s Office has never had an external peer review.
“I think it’s required to have these [external assessments] every three years and an excellent opportunity to have compliance to make the transition [to use of a Budget Office Director] better,” Robin told the Commissioners Court.
Commissioner James Noack made the motion to approve the Board of District Judge’s request up to $30,000 out of the contingency fund. Robin noted that other counties of the size of Montgomery County do comply with this type of assessment.
Robin concluded, “This [assessment] is going to show she’s [County Auditor Martin] doing a great job, or they will find deficiencies, or it’s going to show that it’s a big mess. I don’t know nor do I care. That’s why they put the District Judges in this position, because we are removed from this process.”
The Commissioners Court approved Robin’s request on behalf of the Board of District Judges unanimously.
It was genuinely refreshing to see a public servant so well prepared to make her presentation. In the words of likely incoming Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough, the Republican nominee, Robin would appear to be a “rock star” in the future of Montgomery County politics.