FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida. – The mayor of Fort Lauderdale has used harsh language for those who file anonymous complaints against city employees, whose salaries are paid with taxpayer dollars.
It came in a heated meeting last week that led to the dismissal of the city’s soon-to-be-retired longtime independent auditor after he questioned why he was investigating a complaint he had received against the chief of police, claiming he was working a second job at taxpayer expense.
And now a national group representing internal auditors is weighing in on the abrupt decision to fire 16-year-old veteran auditor John Herbst, who had an unblemished record and told commissioners for years that he conducted independent investigations without any objection.
Questions remain about exactly why the Fort Lauderdale City Commission decided to suddenly fire its longtime independent auditor, but we know the unexpected move came after a heated discussion without an agenda over the decision to open an investigation into an anonymous complaint that Police Chief Larry Scirotto may have been working a second job as an NCAA referee while in town.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis disparaged the plaintiff.
“Only cowardice is what motivated this,” the mayor said at the meeting, challenging the auditor’s authority.
Herbst explained why, in his opinion, the complaint was credible.
“We have screenshots from Telestaff, which is their timing system, which shows it was a day at work for him, and I have screenshots of him attending an NCAA sporting event at the same time,” he said. “It’s a believable situation.”
When Local 10 News asked a Fort Lauderdale police spokesperson if the chief was working a second job while on city time, they simply said “no.”
The city’s website states that audit activities must remain free from influence.
“Under the charter, the city auditor has the power to investigate any business or matter of the city,” Herbst said at the meeting.
“Okay, but that’s up to the direction of the commission that decides what’s up to the city and what isn’t,” the mayor replied.
“No sir, it’s not, the city charter does not say that the city commission establishes an audit work plan or determines what is appropriate for the city auditor to review”, Herbst said.
“I disagree with you,” Trantalis replied.
In an interview with Local 10 News days after the meeting, reporter Christina Vazquez asked the mayor why the city wouldn’t want to pursue an allegation like this.
“Because situations like this are handled by the city manager, the chief of police works for the city manager, it was intended for the city manager to do this investigation or make this decision, it was absolutely outside the purview of of the listener,” Trantalis said.
The mayor’s interpretation of the city charter is that the auditor is there to accept assignments from the city commission, not to conduct independent investigations.
“Our auditor that we hire is responsible for dealing with the cases that we want to investigate, which the commission decides to go ahead with,” he said.
The mayor classified the auditor’s investigation into the police chief’s complaint as a “secret” investigation. Last week, the mayor told Local 10 News that “the listener was engaged in activities that we didn’t know about, we didn’t authorize, basically an undercover investigation that he was involved in.”
In an email to the mayor and commission after the dismissal vote, Herbst wrote that “the implication that I have undertaken a ‘secret’ investigation” is “false” adding that the city manager and the district attorney’s office of the city “were both informed of the forensic investigation from the very beginning.”
City attorney Alain Boileau confirmed to Local 10 News that he “was informed of the forensic investigation from the start.”
City manager Chris Lagerbloom told Local 10 News he was “also informed”.
During the February 15, 2022 committee meeting, Herbst described some of the complaint-driven investigations and independent investigations his office has conducted over the past 16 years without incident that he said were similar to the one he said. Mayor and Commissioner Steven Glassman appeared to disagree. before the commission suddenly votes to terminate his contract.
“We had an almost identical case last year where my office received a complaint about the acting chief that we also investigated and brought to your attention,” Herbst told the commission, “and we sent it to you as a final report, there was no objection to the report at that time.
Herbst added that the findings of that report were that the acting chief had not violated the city’s nepotism policies.
Hired in 2006, Herbst, a CPA, “has served as an independent city auditor since its inception through a charter review in 2004,” according to the city’s website.
At the commission meeting, Herbst said he planned to retire in the coming months.
He also said he would be willing to drop the investigation they opposed. They fired him anyway. He received 60 days’ notice and four months’ severance pay in accordance with the terms of his contract.
In a statement to Local 10 News, the Institute of Internal Auditors described the mayor’s comments as “disturbing” and in conflict with the city’s auditor’s independent watchdog role, adding:
“Although management participates in the internal audit process, it does not control it.”
Full statement from the Institute of Internal Auditors:
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