Friday, August 6, 2010

Presiding judge requests audit of family court (Marin County, California)

Marin County, California has long had a track record of court corruption and cronyism. Now we hear that Family Court Services mediators were told to destroy their records before an internal audit of the courts could take place.

For Immediate Release: August 5, 2010
Contact: Kathleen Russell Cell: 415-250-1180

Presiding Judge Requests Audit of Marin Family Court

AOC Audit About the Alleged Destruction of Marin County Mediation Files To Be Complete By Mid-August

SAN RAFAEL- History is repeating itself in Marin County. It was recently confirmed that the Superior Court of California in Marin is undergoing an investigation by the Internal Auditing Services of the California Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). This new audit was requested by Marin Presiding Judge Terence Boren to explore the alleged improper destruction of family court records by mediators there, and a report detailing the internal audit’s findings is due within weeks.

It is believed that the new AOC investigation stems from the sworn testimony of Marin County Family Court Services mediator Meredith Braden. Braden testified in April 2010 that in the Fall of 2009, Marin Family Court Services mediators were told to destroy mediation custody records while a legislative audit of the Marin Family Court was underway. Braden testified that to the best of her knowledge, Marin Court Executive Officer Kim Turner gave the direction to destroy mediation custody files.

“We want answers to the relevant questions: who gave the orders, who knew about the orders and who destroyed the records? Exactly which records were destroyed, when and why? Let’s make sure that the AOC obtains and reports truthful answers to these critical questions and then takes appropriate disciplinary action against those involved,” said Marin family law attorney Barbara Kauffman.

Kauffman obtained an official copy of the transcribed testimony and forwarded it to Chief Justice Ron George, members of the California Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees, and the Marin County Board of Supervisors. She asked elected officials to take action and seek a formal investigation to determine if the destruction of records violated state law, including Family Code section 1819, and Government Code Section 6200. Kauffman noted that mediation custody records often contain important case information that is not a part of the official court file. For example, in one of Kauffman’s cases, a child had reported to a mediator that his father hit him, but the mediator had not included the child’s comment in her mediation report. The child’s report of being hit was discovered by a review of the mediator’s hand-written notes which are kept in the mediation custody files.

Kim Turner is no stranger to controversy, or to AOC internal audits. From 1999-2005, she was the assistant to former Marin Court Executive Officer John Montgomery, whom she described as her “friend” and “boss extraordinaire.” She became the Marin Court Executive Officer in 2005, after Mr. Montgomery was arrested on 10 felony counts of conflict of interest for funneling over $650,000 in court consulting contracts to his live-in girlfriend, acquiring property with that girlfriend and concealing the acquisitions, and taking out-of-state trips without proper court authorization. Turner knew about many of Mr. Montgomery’s questionable and/or illegal acts, and she reportedly signed off on some of them. She waited until January 2005, right before an impending financial audit of the Marin courts, to report Mr. Montgomery’s improper conduct to the Marin presiding judge. When questioned about her actions, Turner apparently claimed she was acting under either duress or intimidation.

Notwithstanding the AOC’s criticism of Turner in its "Internal Audit Services Report” (Special Investigation 2005-004) prepared by the Finance Division of the AOC, she was selected by the Marin bench to replace John Montgomery, reportedly over the objections of nearly half of the courthouse staff.

In June 2009, as the vote was imminent on whether California’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee would approve an investigation of the Marin County Family Court, Chief Justice Ron George appointed Kim Turner to the exclusive 27-member California Judicial Council. Court observers and critics were aghast that Turner, herself the subject of scrutiny for covering up court misconduct, was selected to sit on this council, which sets policy for the California Judicial Branch.

The Center for Judicial Excellence applauds this important inquiry into the destruction of essential court mediation records, but we have concerns about the investigators’ potential for bias, given that the audit is being conducted by the Administrative Office of the Courts, which staffs the Judicial Council, of which Kim Turner is a member.

“This appears to be a case of the foxes guarding the henhouse” said Jean Taylor, Board President of the Center for Judicial Excellence, “but we will see. How can you defend the destruction of important and relevant custody records, while a state legislative audit that is focused on those records is going on?”

Relevant Background Information

Government Code 6200

6200. Every officer having the custody of any record, map, or book, or of any paper or proceeding of any court, filed or deposited in any public office, or placed in his or her hands for any purpose, is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years if, as to the whole or any part of the record, map, book, paper, or proceeding, the officer willfully does or permits any other person to do any of the following:

(a) Steal, remove, or secrete.

(b) Destroy, mutilate, or deface.

(c) Alter or falsify.

Family Code Section 1819

(a) Except as provided in subdivision (b), upon order of the judge of the family conciliation court, the supervising counselor of conciliation may destroy any record, paper, or document filed or kept in the office of the supervising counselor of conciliation which is more than two years old.

(b) Records described in subdivision (a) of child custody or visitation mediation may be destroyed when the minor or minors involved are 18 years of age.

Sworn April 2010 testimony of Marin Family Court Services mediator Meredith Braden (in a case involving a young child)

"Q. Okay. Well, generally do you have a file for each mediation case?

A. It’s a little complicated. We do keep files currently, but at one point the directive was that we were no longer keeping files. They were all destroyed.

Q. They were all destroyed?

A. Yes.

Q. Can you tell me who directed you to do that?

A. It was Kim Turner, to the best of my knowledge, yes.

Q. What do you mean by to the best of your knowledge?

A. I mean, we were told, through our supervisor at the time, that that was the policy from above him.

Q. Who was your supervisor?

A. Leo Terbeiten. But he has since retired.

Q. When did he retire?

A. At the end of 2009.

Q. End of December?

A. Yes.

Q. Okay. So between the period of September 21st, when you interviewed these parties, and the end of December, then were you instructed to throw away your files?

A. You know, I don’t remember the exact dates. There were — all of the files were destroyed at some point in the Fall. Obviously it was after September 21st. And then the policy was reversed at some point, also in the Fall, prior to December, but I couldn’t tell you exactly when. And so since that time we’ve been maintaining the files again."

A copy of the transcript of the mediator’s testimony can be sent to you upon your request.”


Kathleen Russell
Executive Director
Center for Judicial Excellence

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