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Children's Board votes to conduct independent audit of its practices

TAMPA — Just three weeks ago, Hillsborough commissioners voted to request a state audit of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County following months of reports about questionable no-bid contracts and poor staff morale.

On Thursday, board members who oversee the $30 million, taxpayer-funded agency decided not to wait on the state, voting unanimously to seek an independent financial audit of their own.

Board member Mike Carroll, who is the Suncoast Regional director for the Department of Children and Families, pitched the proposal.

He said lingering questions about the Children's Board warranted additional measures, especially if the state Legislature sits on the request.

"I think we need to do something in the shorter term," he said.

The public agency that finances child welfare programs has been under scrutiny in recent months, starting with the revelation that chief executive officer Luanne Panacek let a friend in after hours to spread holy oil and "bless" the public building.

A series of Tampa Bay Times reports later showed problems with how agency executives handled at least $450,000 in no-bid contracts, including two that went to a former Children's Board employee. More recently, a Children's Board staffer put together her own analysis suggesting the value of contracts not following bid policy is even higher — nearly $4 million since 2007.

Panacek sent out a statement that disputed some parts of that report but did not contradict the $4 million figure.

Carroll's proposal calls for the Children's Board to seek a partnership with the commission for the audit, possibly seeing if the county would help select the audit firm if the Children's Board picks up the cost. Officials also plan to ask commissioners to put them on the list of agencies audited by the Hillsborough Clerk's Office.

Commission chairman Ken Hagan sent a June 12 letter to the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee requesting fiscal and management audits of the Children's Board. It is unclear if legislators will order the audit.

"We believe a fiscal and management audit would afford the community an opportunity to review the current situation, to propose improvements and ultimately to develop a plan so that we can restore confidence and return the Children's Board to a sound operational footing," Hagan wrote.

Under a new state law, the property tax that finances the Children's Board comes up for voter reauthorization in 2016.

An audit of staffing issues at the Children's Board is already under way. The report is scheduled to be discussed at a July 12 board meeting.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

Children's Board votes to conduct independent audit of its practices 06/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2012 10:10pm]
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