FORT WALTON BEACH — In the wake of the Mark Bellinger fraud scandal, local lawmakers and community leaders have called for more oversight in Okaloosa County government.
County commissioners have since set stringent limits on tourist development spending. They also have placed the tourism development department under the full supervision of the county administrator for the first time since 2005.
Now, the board is considering creating an internal auditor position. Newly elected County Commissioner Kelly Windes has proposed hiring an auditor who would report directly to the commissioners.
“This is really not my idea,” Windes said. “This comes from the people I’ve been hearing from on the (campaign) trail.”
Voters are demanding more oversight in light of the Bellinger scandal, he added.
Bellinger, the former director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council, killed himself May 4 after officials discovered he had purchased a $710,000 yacht with county bed tax money. It was learned later that he bought a $740,000 home in Destin, a $48,000 Porsche, RVs, customized motorcycles and a building lease with county funds.
Many critics have since questioned how he could spend so much money with so little scrutiny.
Windes said the commission owes it to the taxpayers to make sure future fraud is discovered more quickly, if not completely deterred.
“I’m no auditor, but I know we’ve got to have more help along those lines,” he said. “We can damn sure use some more oversight in this county.”
But Okaloosa County Clerk of Court Don Howard says auditing and accounting duties, as defined in the Florida Constitution, belong solely to his office.
“The only area I would have a problem with … is if there were an auditor who worked with the board who was trying to come in and do financial auditing,” Howard said. “It’s very clear in the constitution, and furthermore in the statutes, that it’s the clerk’s responsibility.”
The county has one internal auditor, Tim Pozza, who is a Clerk of Court employee.
Windes said a staff of one doesn’t provide Okaloosa with enough scrutiny.
“All the auditing that goes on in the county should be coming from more than one place,” he said. “It shouldn’t be all our eggs in one basket.”
Windes said county officials are researching the idea of an internal auditor and that he’s eager to find out if it’s legal for one to report directly to commissioners.
“To me, the utmost duty of the commissioner is to take care of the people’s money,” he said. “Be a good steward. How is one little auditor guy, within the purview of one office that we can’t get into basically, how’s he going to take care of all of it? We’ve just got to get in there.”
Howard agrees that more scrutiny is needed, but said his office didn’t drop the ball during the Bellinger fraud scheme.
“It was my finance office that actually discovered the problem when the boat was acquired,” he said. “When we received the title to this boat, we were quite stunned. … Would we have been happier if it had been discovered earlier? Absolutely.”
At the time, Bellinger was a department head with purchasing authority, and was adept at writing vague invoices that included all the necessary signatures, Howard said.
“There’s no question that there needs to be better controls and security, but I’m not so sure it’s in the area of finance and accounting … as much as it is in policies and procedures,” Howard said.
Howard said he would be willing to expand his one-person auditing staff, but that it will take money currently not budgeted.
Windes agreed, but said that considering the fraud discovered in the past six months, the money would be well spent.
“I know this would be yet another position, and it might be construed as big government, but if you look at the history, I think the citizens will appreciate some more looking in on the situation,” he said. “I want more scrutiny wherever we can get it.”
Windes said he has definite ideas about a job description for an auditor and the kinds of access that person should have to county records.
Commissioners agreed last week to wait until the State Auditor General’s Office has issued its final report on the Bellinger case before addressing the auditor’s position.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Kari Barlow at 850-315-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KariBnwfdn.