Judge Gail S. Tusan (File photo)
Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Gail Tusan has threatened to jail County Manager Dwight Ferrell and Finance Director Patrick O’Connor if they don’t start reimbursing the court’s judges for travel and training expenses.
In a show-cause order issued Aug. 13, Tusan wrote that the two county officials have ignored an administrative order requiring them to reimburse legitimate expense requests. The judge demanded that they begin honoring such requests within 10 business days of submission or appear at a contempt hearing next month.
“You are hereby on notice, that the court may consider your failure to adhere to this order as willful, in which case the court has the authority to incarcerate or impose other sanctions including fines,” wrote Tusan.
Attached to the order are documents detailing examples of some unreimbursed expenses, including nearly $2,000 submitted by Judge Constance Russell in April to cover lodging, travel and seminar costs for her trip to the June meeting of the State Bar of Georgia at Amelia Island.
Russell referred inquiries to Tusan.
Tusan was not available to discuss the order, but she mentioned in an interview earlier this month that the county was “requiring a lot of hoops for the judges to jump through” in order to get reimbursements for such expenses.
“Since this is a currently pending matter before the court, it would be inappropriate to make any comment,” said County Attorney R. David Ware.
In 2013, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation giving the Fulton Superior Court’s chief judge the authority to oversee the courts’ spending, a long-sought goal of the court. The move was part of a reorganization of the Fulton County judicial system based on recommendations by a task force of state and county lawmakers, judges and attorneys.
In April, Tusan and State Court Chief Judge John Mather issued an administrative order citing the legislation and decreeing that prior approval for business expenses is not required.
“Recognizing the need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, the court hereby orders and affirms that all county allocated funds shall be utilized as a public resource and the constitutional officers and court administrator shall exercise economic prudence when expending such funds,” it said. “The court affirms that all funds shall be expended for official business purposes as officers of the court. As such, prior approval to expend funds shall not be required. The above affirmation is all that is required in order to expend funds as requested in the form of payment vouchers, reimbursements and all other associated administrative functions to complete travel and training transactions.”
In her show cause order, Tusan wrote that Ferrell and O’Connor “and all other responsible parties have failed to timely reimburse all existing reimbursements and/or travel request pursuant to Administrative Order No. 2014EX00480, have acted arbitrarily in following many of its reimbursement policies and further interfered with the clear authority of Fulton County constitutional officers’ right to expend authorized allocated travel and training budgets as they deem appropriate to carry out their official functions. Said action and inaction collectively have thwarted the efforts of said judicial officers to obtain necessary training, maintain required certifications and in many cases cost the taxpayers additional amounts due to forced last-minute purchases of airfare or hotel registrations.” Further, it said, “legitimate reimbursement requests have been returned without good cause.”
If Ferrell and O’Connor comply with the order, Tusan wrote, there will be no need for them to appear at the Sept. 2 contempt hearing. Otherwise, they must “show cause why the responsible parties should not be held in contempt for failure to timely reimburse or fund all existing reimbursements and/or travel requests.”