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Bentley - Cochran placed on leave


Bentley - Cochran placed on leave 


  •  Circuit clerk’s office being investigated by FBI, SBI, DA after ‘alleged improprieties’



Staff Writer


 Article contributed by The Journal Record


HAMILTON  - Marion County Circuit Clerk Sheila Cochran’s office is the subject of an audit and investigation into alleged financial misdeeds. Cochran has been placed on administrative leave by Marion County Presiding Circuit Judge John Bentley. 


Pointing to an audit that is still being conducted, Bentley confirmed on Thursday, July 16, what had been rumored during the week around the courthouse. He said assistant circuit clerk Denise Mixon has been placed in charge of the office for now. 


Cochran could not be reached for comment on July 15. 


Bentley cited his authority to place Cochran on leave by pointing out Section 12-17-14 of the Code of Alabama, which says, “The presiding circuit judge shall exercise a general supervision of the judges, clerks, registers, court reporters, bailiffs, sheriffs and other court employees of the circuit and district courts within the circuit, except employees of the clerk, and see that they attend strictly to the prompt, diligent discharge of their duties.”


“There has been brought to my attention on July 14 some alleged improprieties in the management of the financial accounts in the Circuit Clerk’s Office,"  Bentley said. “There is an ongoing investigation by the FBI office in Florence, SBI (State Bureau of Investigation) and the local DA's (District Attorney’s) office.


“The audit that commenced, I think, back in May covering from February 2013 through July 14 of 2014, has not been completed and probably will not be completed until the end of July, hopefully, but possibly going into August.”


“As of the afternoon of July 14, pursuant to the state statute (12-17-14), I placed the clerk of the court on administrative leave and I am entering an order today appointing the assistant clerk, Denise Mixon, as the interim acting clerk until this matter can be resolved."


Asked if Cochran had resigned, Bentley said, “Not at this juncture."  He said, “We’ve got very good employees in the Circuit Clerk’s Office. They are handling this with grace.” 


Bentley declined to comment further. “I think that is about all I can say at this juncture," he said. 


Marion County Commission Chairman Mike Davis said on July 16 that the locks  were changed on all the circuit clerk offices on the second floor of the Marion County Courthouse at about 3:30 p.m. on July 15. He declined further comment. 


Scott Hoyem, a spokesman for the state Administrative Office of Courts in Montgomery, said on Wednesday, July 15, “We are aware of the investigation. Ms. Cochran’s not at the office at this time. We are awaiting further details.” He would not elaborate on the statement.


A spokesman for the FBI in Birmingham said on July 15 it is the long-standing policy of the Justice Department that the FBI can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation. 


Johnathan Appling, a spokesman for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which includes the State Bureau of Investigation, said on July 17 the agency could not comment on the matter, referring questions to the FBI. 


Marion County District Attorney Jack Bostick and Assistant District Attorney Paige Vick could not be reached for comment on July 17. Marion County Sheriff Kevin Williams said on July 17 that his office was not helping with the investigation.


In November 2012, Cochran, a Democrat, polled 55 percent of the vote to be re-elected over Republican Brenda Real to a second six-year term  under the name Sheila Silas Bozeman before reverting after the election to her married name of Cochran. 


In 2012, she said in a candidate profile for the Journal Record, “Bozeman has worked in and around the clerk’s office for a total of 31 years, nine of those being spent in the Probate Judge’s Office, and 17 years working for a law firm in Hamilton. The past five years have been spent as your circuit clerk.


“While serving as your circuit clerk, Bozeman has been audited twice, and both audits have shown no findings and no recommendations.”


In addition to keeping up with court records, Cochran noted in the 2012 candidate profile she is a magistrate of the court, which allows her to issue warrants and hold 48- and 72-hour bond hearings. Among other duties, she has served as a local passport agent and as the election absentee vote manager. 


Another description in late 2011 noted that the clerk is to serve as the “chief administrative and fiscal manager of the district and circuit courts, issue warrants to law enforcement around the clock, issue writs and summons, manage juries and court records, help in appointing poll workers, certify votes, serve as absentee election manager, approving bonds, being a passport acceptance agent, prepare appeal transcripts and conducting judicial sales.” 


In 2011, the circuit clerk’s annual salary was $69,000. 


Cochran has had problems with at least one audit since the 2012 election. A 2013 state audit, which ran from April 1, 2009, to Jan. 31, 2013, pointed to documentation problems involving $18,833 in the Circuit Clerk’s Office, as well as untimely deposits. 


Cochran said at the time no money was ever missing, and it was all accounted for. She said the $18,833 involved money she was getting reimbursed from conferences and expenses, while auditors told her she had to pay for the expenses herself and then turn in the expenses to the state, as opposed to taking funds out of office funds. 


An office debit card was also used at a photography studio, which she said was a mistake, and at gas stations, as she said she was mistaken in thinking she could buy gas to travel to 72-hour hearings at the Marion County Jail in Hamilton. The hearings have since been moved to the Marion County Courthouse. 


The audit talked about deposits not being made in a timely manner, which Cochran said was because of being short-handed in the office. 


The audit noted all amounts were subsequently “repaid by the circuit clerk.”

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