Wellston's Municipal Court Is Utterly Messed Up, Audit Finds

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Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway says Wellston's court botched records and mishandled money. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Photo by Doyle Murphy
  • Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway says Wellston's court botched records and mishandled money.
Wellston, a speck of a city in north St. Louis County, has bungled court records for years and mismanaged thousands of dollars, including fees that were supposed to go to a domestic violence shelter but never did, according to a new audit.

The review of the city's one-judge municipal court found "widespread problems," says Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway, who rated the court's performance as "poor" — the worst distinction her office makes.

"We found widespread problems that directly impact citizens and do require immediate action," Galloway told reporters today.

The court's record-keeping was so bad that state investigators found that 90 percent of the paper case files didn't match what clerks had entered into the computer system. The judge and prosecutor often didn't sign off on cases, and auditors found 21,000 active warrants that should have been recalled as part of statewide court reform but weren't, leaving people vulnerable to mistaken arrests, Galloway says. 

"These warrants are not just numbers on paper," Galloway says. "They have real world implications."

Wellston's population is about 2,300, and it covers less than a square mile. But the problems uncovered were far from small. In just one example, the bank account to hold bond fees was $280,000 short, according to the audit. Investigators couldn't find some of the money, but they say the city used about $90,000 to make lease payments for police cars.

That's not allowed, Galloway says. Bond money is supposed to be held in case it needs to be refunded to defendants or used to pay off court costs. 

Wellston has since disbanded its police department, and now contracts with the North County Policing Cooperative for services. 

The municipal court routinely collected fees on dismissed cases, which also isn't allowed, Galloway says. In one year, the court collected about $25,000 from roughly 1,000 dismissed cases. 

A $2 court fee supposedly earmarked for domestic violence shelters totaled about $5,000 in 2015. Auditors say they can't determine where the money went, but it didn't go to any shelters.

Wellston officials didn't return a request for comment from the Riverfront Times, but in written responses to the state's findings they blamed the issues on a lack of resources, confusion after the police force was disbanded and staff shortages. 

"The city and municipal court are in the process of reviewing policies and procedures and fully intend to comply with all applicable statutory requirements," Wellston officials wrote.

The audit was conducted at the request of Wellston residents, who petitioned the state to investigate their city's finances. Galloway, who has been reviewing municipal courts across the state, is still looking into Wellston's government and threw in the court audit for free. 

The city audit is expected to be finished before the end of the year.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the reporter at doyle.murphy@riverfronttimes.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.


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