Judges allowed to keep money

Thursday, November 29, 2001

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Two judges do not have to turn over to the state millions of dollars in a fund they are supervising that has been used to pay for county courthouse improvements, a judge ruled.

More than $5.4 million in disputed funds controlled by Cole County circuit judges Byron Kinder and Thomas J. Brown III do not have to be turned over to the state as unclaimed property, Special Judge Ward Stuckey said in a ruling released Wednesday.

Stuckey, a Platte County circuit judge, ruled the funds always have remained under the circuit court's control, that "interest upon the funds may properly be used for expenses of administration and that the balance may properly be paid to the Cole County Commission from time to time."

Kinder and Brown have said the state has no legal standing to the funds.

"I have no comment at this time," Kinder said Wednesday in an interview. "But rest assured that I will have comments at the appropriate time."

Attorney General Jay Nixon has asserted that the two judges are exercising unlawful control over the money and are acting beyond the scope of their powers. He said the money should have been turned over to the Unclaimed Properties Division of the state treasurer's office.

One of the cases being supervised by the judges involves the insolvency of the Old Security Life Insurance Co., two concern Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. and one involves surcharges imposed in the 1970s by several utility companies.

In each case, special funds were established by the court to distribute money to people making a claim. But money remains in those funds, and state Treasurer Nancy Farmer believes the law requires that it be turned over to her when the rightful owners cannot be found after five years.

"Money that the utility and insurance companies owed consumers should be returned to consumers, not used for courthouse remodeling," Nixon said Wednesday in response to the ruling. He said the public must be sure that money deposited with a court will go to those who have claims to it.

Nixon to appeal

"I will place these questions directly and appropriately in front of a higher court," Nixon said.

State Auditor Claire McCaskill said most of the claimants had not been located and little or no follow up was being done to find them. She recommended the judges consider turning over the assets to the treasurer.

In May, an appeals court in Kansas City, Mo., stopped an attempt by Nixon to force the judges to release the money. A similar attempt failed in Osage County in September.

The Cole County judges have said every county in Missouri has similar funds that generate interest used by local governments. In Cole County, they said, the interest was used primarily to supplement general revenue expenditures such as health department improvements.

The judges said some of the funds were expended for matters related to courthouse security, facilities and staff at the juvenile center, general improvements and a court computer system.

The use of court-held funds to pay for office improvements isn't unique to Cole County. Circuit courts in St. Louis city, St. Louis County, Jackson County and other areas also use interest on court deposits for things such as office supplies, computer equipment, furniture and courtroom renovations.

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