Who was watching the town bail fund in Southold?

04/11/2014 8:00 AM |
Christine Stulsky, center, walks out of court after being released on bond last month. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Christine Stulsky, center, walks out of court after being released on bond last month. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)

Two weeks after a Southold Town court clerk was charged with stealing more than $50,000 in bail money over several years from the justice court’s funds, town and state authorities say liability for any stolen funds falls on the elected justices who run the courts.

The town is now looking at ways to increase oversight of the same court system that the town’s external auditors found to have repeated “discrepancies and deficiencies” in record keeping over the past three years, said Supervisor Scott Russell.

So far — despite meetings involving town officials, auditors and the justices — those previous audit findings have not been addressed by the judges, he said.

“We rely on our justices to run our justice courts,” Mr. Russell said. “I can’t direct an elected official to do anything.”

Reached while on vacation in Florida, Southold Town Justice Rudolph Bruer — with whom accused senior clerk Christine Stulsky worked most closely — declined to comment on the charges against her.

He also said he would not speak about how he and his fellow judge, William Price, ran the court system’s finances, citing the ongoing investigation against Ms. Stulsky by the county district attorney’s office.

“It would be really inappropriate for any of us to be talking about it,” Justice Bruer said. “We are supposed to not be talking about something that’s an ongoing matter.”

Southold Town Justice's Rudy Bruer, left, and William Price at Judge Bruer's swearing in ceremony in 2012. (Credit: Beth Young)

Southold Town Justices Rudy Bruer, left, and William Price at Judge Bruer’s swearing in ceremony in 2012. (Credit: Beth Young)

Mr. Russell said Tuesday that he was previously informed by the justices that it was the state’s responsibility under the Office of Court Administration to review the town court system. He said last month that “We’ll be having discussions with the court administration. This rests with them and this town wants answers.”

Mr. Russell also told The Suffolk Times that justice court receivables are audited each year by the New York State Office of Court Administration.

But David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the state courts, said the state gives only “guidance and support” and has no authority to review or audit town courts unless it is asked to.

“If they alert us that they’d like us to come in and do an audit we will, but these courts are under their watch,” Mr. Bookstaver said.

Mr. Russell said Tuesday that he had been told by the justices that OCA was receiving monthly reports they would use for an audit, and relayed that to The Suffolk Times in a March 26 interview.

“That might have been a misstatement on my part, but again, I’m not an attorney,” he said. “I have to rely on the judges to present the information to me.”

A 1983 legal opinion by the New York Office of the State Comptroller goes one step further, saying a town justice may be found personally liable for failure to “perform his or her statutory duties” — which include overseeing their staff.

The opinion goes on to say that justices may be “removed from office for disregarding statutory record keeping requirements and carelessness in handling public moneys.”

Even if a justice didn’t take money himself, according to the opinion, he may be found “personally liable for money paid to the court and then stolen from his or her office.”

Prosecutors have claimed Ms. Stulsky took “in excess” of $50,000 over several years and used the money to pay for “everyday expenses,” such as pet food, groceries and cigarettes.

Ms. Stulsky resigned from her post March 19 and surrendered to authorities March 30. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of felony grand larceny and defrauding government and misdemeanor official misconduct.

She was released from custody after posting $10,000 bond shortly after her court appearance.