Audit finds protocols breached during hiring for Hernando County dredge project

BROOKSVILLE — In hiring the former manager of the Hernando Beach Channel dredging project under emergency conditions, County Administrator David Hamilton breached four protocols, exposing Hernando to risk and damaging the county's public image, according to an audit released Friday.

The most serious accusation emerging from how the project was handled at this time concerned whether Hamilton had hired the manager, Greg Jarque, as a payback for work Jarque had done on a project that involved Hamilton's wife.

The audit "did not find any clear evidence that could substantiate this allegation.''

The audit, however, could be in line for deeper scrutiny.

Audit services director Peggy Caskey, who conducted the investigation for Karen Nicolai, Clerk of the Circuit Court, told county officials in an e-mail Friday afternoon that she had been contacted by an FBI agent who wanted a copy of the audit.

The FBI agent wrote to Caskey, "…the FBI Tampa Division would like to review the finalized audit it its entirety before making any decisions on going forward with opening a case. Because of this, I would ask that the work papers that support the audit findings not be released to the media at this time."

After the release of the audit, Hamilton told the St. Petersburg Times that "we welcomed the report and take no issue with its harsh findings.''

He vowed to keep focused on getting the dredge done and not make the same errors again.

On Monday, he will meet with the county's new procurement officer Russell Wetherington and Administrative Services Director Cheryl Marsden to go over the audit findings and "begin revising our processes currently in place to ensure that needed levels of scrutiny and openness are followed in the future,'' Hamilton wrote in a prepared response.

"It is through the implementation of these changes that we can hold the trust of the public in matters of public purchasing.''

He also said that the audit results release made Friday "a humbling day.''

County Commissioner Jeff Stabins said Friday that he believes the FBI is interested in the audit because the agency has authority to subpoena financial records on Hamilton, his wife, Jarque and the Arc Nature Coast that might answer why the administrator wanted to hire Jarque.

He also said that Hamilton should resign over the findings, the second time this week that he has called for the administrator's resignation.

"That is yet another request for the same gesture and my answer is again no,'' Hamilton responded. "We have a job to do and I intend to complete it.''

The steps Hamilton and other county officials took during that period came under emergency conditions, the audit notes.

Because of continuing problems getting the dredge started and the looming Dec. 31 deadline to get the work finished, the County Commission voted 4 to 1 in early February that "special circumstances exist which warrant an exception to the statutory procurement, bidding and award requirements'' of Florida law that require any project over $300,000 be competitively awarded.

That resolution lead to the hiring of Jarque as project manager without seeking competitive proposals.

Jarque, who claimed to be a general contractor, came on the scene in March when Hamilton introduced him to the County Commission as his pick for the construction manager for the dredge. Hamilton said he chose Jarque because he had heard that Jarque had done a good job overseeing the construction of Arc Nature Coast's new facility in Spring Hill, bringing it in on budget and ahead of schedule.

Commissioners gave an informal approval for Jarque to take the job.

Hamilton learned about Jarque from his wife, Linda, who had worked in both paid and volunteer positions with Arc Nature Coast. Hamilton did not immediately disclose that to the commission.

Both Hamilton and Jarque denied any social connection or friendship. Hamilton stressed that the dredge needed someone to provide oversight who could get the job done and that is why he picked Jarque.

The selection immediately ignited controversy. Stabins delivered a scathing letter of criticism of both Jarque and Hamilton. He blasted the choice as cronyism and criticized Jarque's lack of dredging experience, limited construction experience and the fact that he owed the county thousands of dollars in back fire fees.

The allegations in that letter led to the audit.

In mid-April, a divided commission voted to hire Jarque, agreeing to pay his company Gritz Development and Construction LLC $152,500, negotiated down from his initial request of $241,700. But Jarque wasn't on the job long.

A few days later, after the Times reported that Jarque had an old conviction in New York for attempted arson, county officials found he was only a building contractor, not a general contractor.

Hamilton fired him.

Caskey's review found several areas where normally required controls were violated including contract review, the bidding process, vendor background screening and insurance coverage.

She described how Transportation Services Director Susan Goebel obtained several quotes before presenting Jarque to the commission, one from Jarque and one from the county's engineer of record Halcrow, Inc. and quotes from two Halcrow recommended experts.

"Not only was Gritz the highest priced service provider of the four, but Mr. Jarque was the only construction manager candidate that was not an engineer and did not have any dredge or marine experience,'' Caskey wrote.

She also wrote that the County Commission wanted as little involvement with Halcrow as possible at the time and "this made Gritz the only viable choice for the BOCC's selection of a service provider.''

Caskey blamed "overriding, rushing and performing the control after the fact'' for all the headline-generating controversies related to the hiring and then firing of Jarque.

"The controls were designed to protect the BOCC from unnecessary risk,'' she wrote. "The BOCC's public image was damaged.''

Audit finds protocols breached during hiring for Hernando County dredge project 06/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 8:34pm]

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