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COURT FUND MAY RECEIVE CLOSE AUDIT.

Byline: Troy Anderson Staff Writer

Outraged that Los Angeles County Superior Court officials kept secret an account containing $81.6 million, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich called Monday for a sweeping audit to find who is owed $18 million in interest.

Antonovich said he will introduce a motion at today's Board of Supervisors' meeting to order an audit and determine whether the county withdrew money illegally for its general fund.

A Daily News story Sunday outlined how the account was kept secret until a bribery case involving an Encino attorney exposed its existence. Cities and individuals pay into the account during disputes over eminent domain cases, but the courts failed to notify them that they are due interest.

Antonovich said he is outraged by court officials' decision to keep the account confidential for decades.

``The current system is irresponsible and an example of insensitive bureaucrats,'' he said. ``This is an example of why big government is unable to meet the needs of individuals.

``Big bureaucracies tend to lose track of whom they are serving and the courts need to recognize that individuals' rights need to be protected and their properties held need to be returned to them.''

It was only after the bribery case - the largest in county history - that court officials began notifying people about the trust account, which contains $18 million in interest owed to local governments and individuals.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he believes the court's decision not to tell people about the money was a serious act of neglect.

``This is a shocking development involving a large amount of money,'' Coupal said. ``Our hope is that public officials work quickly and earnestly to make sure that the owners of the funds receive what rightfully belongs to them.''

Superior Court Presiding Judge Victor E. Chavez said the court has acted appropriately, and he is upset at the accusation of intentional negligence.

``If you ask for my reaction, it's righteous indignation,'' he said. ``We have not hidden anything from anybody. We have not done anything wrong.

``None of these funds accrue to the benefit of the court. We've got an obligation in case after case to maintain the privacy of the people involved. It's not our obligation or appropriate for us to get other folks involved in other people's cases.''

Chavez said people can check the status of their cases in an index at the court.

``If you expect me or judges to go into ongoing cases and provide people with information, you are expecting too much of us and expecting something we shouldn't do. The indexes have always been open. There is no secret and no wrongdoing.''

In his motion, however, Antonovich disagreed, saying the courts and individuals should have been notified.

``Those entities owed funds should have received regular, timely notice of funds available. Instead, no notice was sent to any entity regarding the trust account. Currently, notice is sent annually to municipalities owed funds, but not to individuals or companies.''

The motion calls for the auditor-controller to audit the account, including separate audits of the principle and interest accounts, determine the amount held in each account and determine whether funds transferred out of the account into the general fund in 1985 and 1994 went through the proper procedures.

Antonovich is also calling on the Superior Court Finance Office to send notices every six months to the cities, businesses and individuals that have funds owed to them.

The court has been sending notices out to cities since last year after the investigation into the bribery case started.

In the scheme, Gregory Pentoney, 32, of Downey gave secret county account data to Encino attorney Robert Fenton, 51, who collected bounty fees for tracking down forgotten funds owed to cities, mostly in interest, according to court records.

They split about $1.5 million in fees by telling cities and other government agencies how they could collect about $5 million. Both pleaded no contest to bribery charges.

On Aug. 11, Fenton began a 16-month state prison term. Pentoney is expected to begin serving a two-year prison term Sept. 8.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 29, 2000
Words:685
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