TALLAHASSEE— The state’s Joint Legislative Auditing Committee on Monday ordered a countywide audit of all Okaloosa County finances as well as an audit of the Clerk of Court’s Office.
The action came during a hearing in Tallahassee attended by four of Okaloosa County’s five commissioners as well as Clerk of Court Don Howard.
Commissioner Wayne Harris did not attend the hearing and will be subpoenaed to appear before the committee next week, members indicated. Also facing subpoenas are a majority of the county’s Tourist Development Council members, none of whom attended Monday’s hearing despite being requested to by the Auditing Committee.
Auditing Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Abruzzo told the county that on Wednesday it would finalize a list of people who are to be subpoenaed to appear before the committee next week.
County Commission Chairman Don Amunds told the committee that four of the TDC members likely did not attend because they were asked by the county to resign Feb. 5 and are no longer on the council.
Abruzzo, D-Wellington, said he was skeptical of the county’s timing and questioned why the board waited until last week to ask for the TDC members’ resignations.
“It seems like a deliberate attempt by your board to ensure they didn’t have to come up and (testify) today. … To me, it looks extremely disingenuous.” Abruzzo said.
“It was not a deliberate attempt at all,” he answered.
The audits of the county government and clerk’s office will be conducted by the state Auditor General’s Office, the same entity that documented mismanagement of millions of dollars in TDC bed taxes and BP oil spill grants. The Auditing Committee, composed of six state representatives and five senators, has direct oversight of the Auditor General’s Office.
The committee questioned County Administrator Jim Curry, Commission Chairman Don Amunds and Commissioner Dave Parisot about the misuse of the bed tax money and BP oil spill grants for more than two hours during Monday’s hearing. The county officials who spoke at the hearing were sworn in before they were questioned.
Two members of the Northwest Florida legislative delegation — Rep. Matt Gaetz and Rep. Doug Broxson — also attended the hearing and participated in the questioning.
Amunds summarized for the committee the timeline of events that have occurred in Okaloosa County since May 2012, when officials discovered the fraud scheme put in place by former TDC head Mark Bellinger. But his presentation, which included a list of policy changes commissioners have implemented in the past nine months, was interrupted by Abruzzo, who began taking questions from lawmakers.
Many of the committee members questioned county officials about which specific county employees and attorneys approved various expenditures, checks and other payments that later turned out to be illegal or unauthorized. They expressed surprise and frustration when Curry confirmed that no employees have been fired or suspended in connection with the fraud scandal.
“How could this happen? It’s just incomprehensible to me,” said Rep. Gayle B. Harrell, R-Stuart.
In response, Curry said there had been “a catastrophic failure of controls at all levels, across the board” within Okaloosa County government, allowing Bellinger’s fraud to take place.
Gaetz told the committee that the county’s response to the scandal — especially the corrective action plan it submitted to the auditor general — has been inadequate.
“It’s inadequate to the people in my community and to me as a legislator,” Gaetz said.
He said he and Okaloosa County residents have been left to wonder if the fraud is the result of “complete and utter incompetence” or if it indicates “criminal culpability.”
Abruzzo and other committee members said they wanted to understand the broader impact of the scandal on Okaloosa taxpayers.
“We would like to get an overall economic impact of what this cost the residents of Okaloosa County,” he said.
Gaetz questioned Amunds and Curry about the $1 million in promotional debit cards provided to the county by BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“What human being made the decision to give Mr. Bellinger (the debit cards)?” he asked.
When Amunds referred the question to Curry, Gaetz said he found it “somewhat disconcerting” that Amunds didn’t have an answer.
Curry told the committee that he believed the Clerk of Court’s Office received the debit cards and gave them to Bellinger.
“That may have been the route,” he said.
Gaetz asked Amunds about a debit card that was provided to the Special Olympics as a prize for a golf tournament fundraiser. Amunds works part-time for the Special Olympics. He said he didn’t direct Bellinger to give the organization a debit card and didn’t find out about it until after the Sheriff’s Office began investigating Bellinger’s tenure at the TDC.
Gaetz also asked Amunds to explain what he thinks his responsibility should be in the fraud scandal.
Amunds said he and the rest of the board have a responsibility to “oversee Okaloosa County.”
“If you see an issue and you believe it’s wrong, you come up with an action plan, as we have done,” he said.
Abruzzo ended the committee meeting with a harsh rebuke of Okaloosa County leaders, telling them they had an obligation not to take advantage of the “national tragedy” that was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of April 2010.
“What has occurred here is really a travesty,” Abruzzo said.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Kari C. Barlow at 850-315-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KariBnwfdn.