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Controller audit finds double payments to Allegheny County constables

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 12:48 p.m.

Duplicate payments made to constables in Allegheny County highlighted a problem the county is trying to remedy, officials with the Controller's Office and district courts said.

An audit Controller Chelsa Wagner released on Tuesday determined that constables received $1,618.02 in double payments during an 18-month period, from the courts and the county. Auditors examined a fraction of the total payments constables requested.

“We have $1,600 that our audit revealed, but there is more money out there,” said Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel for the Controller's Office.

Yet Wagner said she did not think constables tried to bilk the system.

The audit is separate from an investigation into constables by the District Attorney's Office, said Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. The office is investigating misuse of more than $30,000.

Wagner became concerned about the county's risk for fraud in paying constables because a Tarentum-based constable was charged with billing the county nearly $3,000 for invalid services in July, the audit said. The court case against Timothy Dzugan, 50, is pending.

During the months audited, courts paid 322 constables $2.9 million and the county paid 218 constables $4.7 million.

Constables are elected to six-year terms to execute warrants, serve subpoenas and transport defendants to and from court and jail. They can appoint deputy constables to help. About 300 constables work in the county, said Jim Miller, vice president of the Allegheny County Constables Association and a retired constable.

State law sets the fees constables can charge. Fees range from $13 for serving a subpoena to $38 for transporting an incarcerated prisoner. A typical warrant nets a constable $37.50 plus mileage, Miller said. The top-paid constable in the county made nearly $200,000 during the 18 months the controller's office audited, the audit found. Seventeen made more than $100,000.

Constables initially bill the court for services, which attempts to collect fees from defendants to pay the constables. If the court cannot collect the fees, constables are referred to the Controller's Office for payment.

Miller said constables might wait months for payment from the courts, and in that time, they may have received payment from the county.

“The system needs to be changed,” Miller said.

To address payment issues, district court clerks were told to attach notices to any bill they cannot pay before it heads to the county, said Claire C. Capristo, the district court administrator.

A year ago, the state Supreme Court issued rules for constables that included payment requirements. Two years ago, Allegheny County developed a handbook for constables that provided instructions for transporting juveniles and pregnant prisoners and prohibited strip searches and body-cavity searches.

Constables in the state came under scrutiny in 2008 after The Associated Press reported dozens of examples of misconduct, including constables caught stealing court money, having sex with prisoners, threatening people with weapons and illegally impersonating police.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer.




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