TALLAHASSEE — When the state Department of Health demanded that a nonprofit vendor refund more than $100,000 in questionable expenses to Florida taxpayers, the company protested, and a new audit backs the company's position.
Florida's Vision Quest of Orange City, which provides eyeglasses and vision screenings for low-income children statewide, was hired in 2005 and got two three-year contracts.
State funds have been appropriated every year — more than $660,000 in the current budget. But the Department of Health has steered most of that money to another vendor and is paying Vision Quest $160,808 to serve four counties: Volusia, Lake, Orange and Seminole.
The new vendor, Florida Heiken Children's Vision Program, is operated by the Miami Lighthouse for the blind. Department of Health spokesman Rob Hayes said it was chosen over Vision Quest following a competitive negotiation process last fall.
Last year, a Health Department report tallied $102,647 in Vision Quest expenses deemed unauthorized, including travel to a conference in Las Vegas, the forgiveness of a loan and payments to Hebrock Steiner, a Tallahassee lobbying firm.
The company rebutted the allegations point by point and insisted it did nothing wrong. Some legislators wanted the company fired, but it remained under contract to the state even as it refused to submit a refund.
To break the stalemate, the Department of Health hired the auditing firm of Law, Redd, Crona & Monroe of Tallahassee.
The firm's 12-page report noted that the contract between Vision Quest and the state did not require the firm to remit any excess expenses. Auditors also found the state did not cite any problems with the eligibility or number of clients served, and that the firm kept its overhead low by obtaining donated services from optometrists, saving taxpayers money. In one year, the audit found, the company spent $416,000 from grants it received, over and above state funds.
"The results of our evaluation indicate that there was no basis in the two contracts between FVQ (Florida's Vision Quest) and DOH (Department of Health) that would impose a liability upon FVQ to return any of the questioned costs identified by the DOH monitoring report," the audit said.
"Their methodology was so flawed," said Vision Quest executive director Nancy Jeppesen. "They cherry-picked expenditures they didn't like, but did not look at the total amount that was spent on the program."
Vision Quest attorney Tim Cerio said the state's review of the company was "a very inaccurate and unfortunate contract monitoring review.'' He said Jeppesen "spends a lot more on this program than what she gets in state funding. She's going out and raising private money.''
Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid, the incoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the state agency owes lawmakers an explanation.
"The department has just not been responsive. It's an ongoing problem with the Department of Health," Grimsley said.
"We're at the end of an administration," she added, referring Rick Scott replacing Gov. Charlie Crist after Jan. 4. "Hopefully the new administration will review all these contracts and we can reach some sort of an agreement."
Vision Quest employs seven people at its Volusia County offices. It was created in Orange County in 1994 and soon expanded into a statewide venture. For more than a decade, the firm's mobile unit has traveled around the state providing eye exams and eyeglasses to children, except in Miami-Dade County, where the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind's Heiken program offers the services.