Denver County Courts don’t want to open their books for Auditor Tim O’Brien

Denver Auditor Tim O’Brien is seeking a district court ruling granting him the authority to audit Denver County Courts.

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Denver Auditor Tim O’Brien is seeking a district court ruling granting him the authority to audit Denver County Courts.

Previous auditors have conducted reviews of county court operations, according to Taylor Overschmidt, a spokeswoman for the office, but this year, after several months of delays, attorneys for the county courts told the Auditor’s Office that the courts’ prior cooperation had been voluntary.

The Denver County Courts receive a $24 million appropriation in the city budget and generate $23 million in revenue. Denver laws require the auditor to conduct financial and performance audits and grant the auditor’s office access to city records, officers, employees and property in performance of those duties.

According to the Auditor’s Office, counsel for the Denver County Courts said in an email, “The Denver County Court is a separate branch of government, and the Charter does not state that the Auditor’s Office has authority over the Denver County Court.”

With the permission of the City Attorney’s Office, the Denver County Courts have hired outside counsel to dispute the auditor’s right to audit them. The courts are not providing documents or scheduling interviews with representatives of the auditor’s office until the separation of powers issue is resolved.

O’Brien wants the City Attorney’s Office to ask Denver District Court for an opinion on the matter.

“The city attorney is analyzing the relative positions of both sides to this dispute and, in accordance with her charter duties, will make a determination as to whether this can be resolved short of litigation; and if not, then which position is legally correct,” the city attorney’s office said in an email. “This process is expected to take several weeks to finalize, but in the meantime, the city attorney has encouraged the auditor and the Denver County Courts to continue working together to find a solution.”

Overschmidt said it’s more common for the City Attorney’s Office to make a decision in these cases, and it’s a little unusual that the courts have independent legal counsel. However, the city charter allows for the other party in a dispute between city departments to have its own representation, and city spokeswoman Jenna Espinoza described it as “standard procedure.” As of Tuesday midday, the Auditor’s Office had not heard directly from the City Attorney’s Office about the request for a district court ruling, Overschmidt said.

In a press release about the dispute, O’Brien said the charter seems clear.

“The city charter states the auditor shall conduct financial and performance audits of the city and county. The courts are undeniably part of the city and county,” he said.

In an emailed statement, Denver County Courts officials said their concern is with the private financial information of people who interact with the courts.

“The court has voluntarily participated in financial audits, and the court will continue to do so, provided that appropriate protections are in place, including for the citizens whose financial and other information is entrusted to the court,” they said.

And they committed to resolving the issue.

“Court officials would like to meet with the auditor to discuss and resolve the legal and other issues pertaining to the proposed audit,” they said. “If that is not possible, the court certainly respects the rule of law and the charter process to resolve any differing perspectives that the court and the Auditor’s Office may have on the important separation of powers between the branches of government.” 

O’Brien said the courts have known about the pending audit since October 2016; however, the separation of powers issue only came up this summer. As recently as June 1, court officials gave no indication they would not cooperate, he said. Then court officials became less responsive, and on Aug. 3, the auditor received an email laying out the courts’ position that they should not be subject to oversight.

“The courts are not exempt from government accountability,” O’Brien said in the press release.

“I do not want to disrupt the courts,” he continued. “I only want to ensure my office has the unfettered access to audit the entire city as granted by law. The goal of a transparent government must apply to every branch of government.”

This article has been updated to include a response from Denver County Courts.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.