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Cost of investigation may be too high for Safety Harbor after finance director's theft

SAFETY HARBOR — After its financial director admitted stealing up to $80,000 from taxpayers, this city of 18,000 badly wants justice.

But at what price?

City commissioners are now trying to decide the manner in which they will conduct an investigation that could cost thousands of dollars. It also would mean untold hours of work investigating how much money former finance director JoAnne Ryan may have pilfered over the past few years.

The commission decided this week to look into performing an internal accounting of fiscal year 2006 "and investigate any potential losses from that year,'' said Mayor Andy Steingold.

Other options include:

• Contracting with an outside firm to do a forensic audit for 2006.

• Employing a part-time worker to examine the city's finances for 2006.

• Delaying a decision on a course of action.

• Putting the whole ordeal to rest.

Steingold said the cost of doing a forensic audit "is almost prohibitive compared to what we might recover in this matter.''

"Quite frankly, I still think that an audit … whether (the expense) is $50,000 or $150,000, whatever the cost might be, I think we're just not going to recover those costs,'' he said, adding it's not economically feasible at this time.

City Commissioner Joe Ayoub agreed. He said he doesn't ever want to preclude doing a forensic audit, but "I'm not sure it makes the best financial sense.''

"The most we can get out of it is, okay, now we know exactly how much money has been taken,'' Ayoub said. "Okay, now what? What do we do? Do we press more charges?''

He added, "To me, justice is getting all our money back. I think the money is gone. We'll be lucky if we get the $50,000 back.''

Last month, Ryan accepted a plea deal to a lesser charge of second-degree grand theft, carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years. But she was given a deal that means she will serve no more than two years — and perhaps no prison time at all.

Ryan has agreed to pay back $50,000 and prosecutors will be seeking more at her sentencing on Aug. 7.

Records show Ryan and her husband, Tim Ryan, on May 4 sold their house at 2078 Swan Lane, Safety Harbor, to a man named Robert Contorno. According to the affidavit, the terms and price are confidential.

According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office, the property is valued at $290,500.

Records show a Robert Contorno is the director of a company called Alternative Real Estate Solutions.

Commissioners will decide at their July meeting how to proceed. Residents are welcome to attend and have their say.

At a meeting last week, Steingold, City Manager Matt Spoor and the city's current finance director June Solanes met with a Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office investigator.

They wanted to better understand why Ryan was charged with second-degree grand theft when city officials believe they provided enough evidence to have her charged with first-degree grand theft.

One thing the State Attorney's Office has made clear, according to Steingold: The city will be responsible for the cost and energy of any investigation that may take place. And the state attorney wants verification from an independent source.

The State Attorney's Office, Spoor said, "has been pretty clear that if we do pursue this and go back and look at a year or two, three, four or five, they're going to be looking for an opinion from an outside accounting agency.''

Neither Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett nor State Attorney Bernie McCabe could be reached Wednesday.

Bartlett has said it's up to McCabe whether any other charges will be filed against Ryan.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Cost of investigation may be too high for Safety Harbor after finance director's theft 06/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 8:33pm]
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