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Clerk magistrates who oversee court filings have paperwork problems of their own

The Massachusetts court system relies on clerk magistrates and assistant clerks to maintain millions of civil and criminal court filings and make critical legal judgments in tens of thousands of cases a year, many of which are done in controversial closed-door hearings.

But it turns out the clerks have had paperwork issues of their own that could violate state rules.

The Association of Magistrates and Assistant Clerks, a private group that represents hundreds of these court officials, has repeatedly missed filing deadlines with the secretary of state’s office for its annual reports, made tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in violation of its corporate charter, and never filled out Internal Revenue Service forms ordinarily required for tax-exempt organizations.

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“They are a mess,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a watchdog group that supports open government. “That is the bottom line.”

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Richard Locastro, a Bethesda, Md., accountant who advises many nonprofits, offered a critical, though more restrained, view: “There clearly are some paperwork issues.”

Boston Municipal Court clerk magistrate Daniel J. Hogan, who has led the association for a decade and has a law degree, said the association has hired legal counsel to help sort through the documents and make any needed corrections.

“If they were wrong, we need to correct it,” Hogan said.

The Globe Spotlight Team learned about the problems as part of its recent investigation into criminal clerk magistrate hearings, where clerks decide behind closed doors whether there is enough evidence to approve requests for charges from police and others.

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The Spotlight report, “Inside our secret courts,” found clerks declined to issue criminal complaints in nearly 62,000 district and municipal court cases over the past two years, including more than 18,000 where clerks acknowledged there was more than enough evidence to publicly arraign the defendants before a judge. But because the cases are not public, it is hard to know who benefited and why.

The Globe also identified numerous cases in which police, politicians, and other public officials avoided charges in private hearings, and the investigation found dismissal rates varied wildly from one courthouse to the next, raising fundamental questions of fairness in the criminal justice system.

The role of clerks, who oversee the hearings, is particularly controversial because many lack law degrees, have political connections, and face little public oversight for their rulings. And unlike judges, clerks have no mandatory retirement age. Clerk magistrates earn more than $155,000 a year, plus the opportunity to earn thousands more handling bail requests after hours. Assistant clerks earn at least $119,414.

The association represents clerk magistrates and assistant clerks, who work in the district, municipal, juvenile, housing, probate, and family courts. (The superior court clerk magistrates, who are elected, have their own association, which does not appear to have the same filing issues.)

Hogan said the nonprofit, which collects tens of thousands of dollars in annual dues, has spent money on a variety of causes, including education and training for clerks and scholarships for clerks’ children and grandchildren. Members pay dues of $240 per year. One board member said the organization has 350 members, which would work out to $84,000 a year if all of them pay dues.

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But the group also spends money on politics — in apparent violation of its articles of organization. The documents say the organization won’t spend significant resources on lobbying and won’t intervene at all in candidates’ political campaigns — a federal restriction on 501(c) charities.

‘If they were wrong, we need to correct it.’

Yet campaign finance records show the association has made more than $59,000 in donations since 2001, including $500 this year to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, $1,000 last year to Governor Charlie Baker, and thousands of dollars to various state lawmakers. It also paid a Boston lobbying firm, Robert White Associates, more than $100,000 from 2005 to 2008.

Hogan said the articles of organization filed with the secretary of state in 1979 were “archaic.” He said the clerks’ lawyers plan to update the articles to better reflect its current mission. Hogan noted the organization already changed its name a few years ago; it was originally called the Clerk-Magistrate Association for Continuing Legal Education.

The secretary of state’s office records also show the group has regularly missed state deadlines for filing its annual reports, which include a list of officers who oversee the organization. The reports are considered an important piece of public accountability for companies and groups that deal with the public.

Indeed, state records show the organization failed to file reports altogether for more than two decades starting in 1988. The association partly caught up by filing 10 years of reports in February 2011 after learning the forms were missing, but has since repeatedly filed the documents late. A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, Debra O’Malley, said corporations must typically keep the filings current “in order to maintain good standing.”

Hogan declined comment on the tardy filings, except to note that the filings are currently up to date. Boston Juvenile Court clerk magistrate Donna Ciampoli, who has been the association’s treasurer for about nine years and signed the reports during that span, did not return calls seeking comment.

In addition, Hogan acknowledged the association hadn’t filed forms with the Internal Revenue Service that would let it avoid federal taxes. Instead, Hogan said the group paid hundreds of dollars in taxes a year — like a traditional company — something it plans to correct going forward.

”It appears we may have paid too much [in taxes] and didn’t need to,” said Hogan, who has been a clerk for 18 years. “I am learning something in this process.”

But Hogan declined to show the Globe its tax filings, saying the request would first need to be approved by the group’s executive board. Without seeing the paperwork, it is impossible to know precisely how much the organization earned, if and how much it paid in taxes, and whether it complied with all the federal tax rules.

Under IRS regulations, tax-exempt organizations must typically make their annual returns available to the public upon request. But the rule doesn’t apply to for-profit companies and other taxable entities, which file confidential tax returns.

Nonprofit accountants said it’s not uncommon to see small organizations without paid staff occasionally miss some filing deadlines. But they said they were puzzled by the clerks’ decision to describe themselves like a charity in their charter with the secretary of state’s office, engage in political activity like a trade association, then file federal taxes like a for-profit business.

“It’s a little unusual,” said Sandy Ross, a partner with accounting firm KLR in Boston. “It is definitely not a consistent organization.”

Peter Martin, an attorney who advises nonprofits, said it is hard to know how serious the legal violations are without knowing more details, such as whether the organization has ever represented itself as a tax-exempt charity to potential donors or members.

“Without talking to them, it seems as if they are operating in a manner that is not entirely consistent with their organizational documents,” said Martin, a partner with Boston law firm Bowditch & Dewey.

But Martin said it’s surprising that an organization made up of so many legal professionals wouldn’t notice its paperwork issues — and potential irregularities.

“The lack of curiosity is startling to me,” Martin said.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.