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Court report raises conflict-of-interest concern in Ferguson

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The lines separating government powers have been blurred among Ferguson’s court staff, police and prosecutor, raising concerns about potential conflicts of interest, according to a report released Monday by Missouri’s judiciary.

The state report examining Ferguson’s municipal court system comes as a follow-up to a highly critical U.S. Justice Department report released earlier this year, which asserted that the city’s police and courts had been used as a revenue-generating machine.

The Justice Department review was prompted by the fatal shooting last August of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by a white Ferguson police officer.

After the federal review, the Missouri Supreme Court in March appointed appeals Judge Roy Richter to take over the Ferguson court and asked court administration experts to take a look at how things were working.

The new report summarizes the observations and recommendations of those unnamed experts, noting several potential conflicts of interest that caused concern.

Until very recently, the report said, court staff were required to report to the police chief. That structure “potentially compromises the separation our government is to have” between the judicial and executive branches, the report said.

Ferguson has since shifted the supervision of clerk staff to the city finance director. But the report said that also poses a potential conflict of interest, because the financial chief is part of the executive branch and “could place undue pressure on the clerk staff … to focus on revenue rather than fairness and due process of law.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said Monday night that the court clerk staff had been placed under the police chief years ago because their offices are in the police building. By placing them under the finance director, he said Ferguson is following a structure that’s common in many cities.

But “to say they report to any of them is really a misnomer,” Knowles said. “For the purposes of budgeting, that’s where they’re at … but the finance director is not down there in the court scrutinizing whatever they do.”

The report recommends that the Missouri Supreme Court bring in additional outside experts to develop the most appropriate way of restructuring the city’s court clerk staff.

Knowles said the city is “open to making improvements.”

The report said Ferguson appears to have violated the Supreme Court’s procedural rules by having police file a citation — and court staff open a file — before a prosecutor reviews the case.

The report also raised concerns that court clerk staff were responsible for handling work for the city prosecutor, and that the prosecutor’s documents were co-mingled with court documents in the same files.

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Follow David A. Lieb at: https://twitter.com/DavidALieb.

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