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Hernando commissioners deeply divided on audit's critical findings

BROOKSVILLE — After an audit critical of County Administrator David Hamilton's handling of hiring a construction manager for the Hernando Beach Channel dredging project, Hamilton's bosses have a full range of reactions.

One wants Hamilton to quit, while others acknowledge that the circumstances of trying to get the project done by the Dec. 31 deadline were unique and the mistakes understandable.

The audit released last week determined that Hamilton had violated four county purchasing controls in hiring Greg Jarque as construction manager. Those violations opened the county to risk and damaged the County Commission's image, audit services director Peggy Caskey concluded.

Officials from the FBI and the State Attorney's Office are reviewing the records to see if any laws were broken.

The key accusation Caskey explored was whether Hamilton recommended Jarque for the job "as payback for pro-bono work'' Jarque's firm did for Arc Nature Coast. Jarque oversaw construction of the agency's training facility and hurricane shelter in Spring Hill. Hamilton's wife, Linda, helped raise funds for the project both as a paid staffer and later as a volunteer.

Because of "the limited nature of this audit,'' Caskey wrote, she "did not find any clear evidence that could substantiate this allegation.''

Caskey told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday she did not have the authority to interview people outside what she called her "auditable atmosphere'' and that included Jarque and Linda Hamilton. She also didn't have the authority to look at financial records of those key players.

"That's why it goes to law enforcement,'' she said.

On Tuesday, FBI spokesman David Couvertier said only, "We are reviewing the audit.'' The inquiry from the FBI stopped the county from making public the working papers and interview notes from the audit while the agency decides whether to launch an investigation.

Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson was also reviewing the audit on Tuesday for the possibility of any criminal actions.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who has been Hamilton's chief critic recently, said he wants the administrator to resign. Hamilton has declined.

While the commission approved a resolution in February allowing county staff to follow an expedited process for picking firms to work on the dredge, the audit indicates that other rules were not set aside by that action.

That upsets Stabins.

"We didn't, nor did we have the right to, do away with all procurement rules,'' he said.

"Every time we have another issue, it's always, "I'm sorry. I'll fix it. It's not going to happen again,' " Stabins said. "At what point is sorry not good enough?"

Commissioner Wayne Dukes, though, said Hamilton is not the only one to blame for waiving rules in the push to get the dredge done.

"Everybody who touched that has to share responsibility for it,'' he said. Dukes pointed out that, every step of the way, the actions were done publicly and with the County Commission's approval. Commissioners received regular briefings on what was happening from Hamilton.

"We did everything as transparent as possible,'' but none of the authorities along the way from the Clerk's Office, which conducted the audit, to the County Attorney's Office, which wrote the resolution allowing the deviation from the rules, ever flagged the actions, Dukes noted.

"I was surprised that the audit was even done,'' he said.

Dukes acknowledges that corners were cut but that was a choice made in order to get the dredging done by the deadline.

"We sped up the process and we as a board accepted that. The responsibility was ours,'' he said. "I think we learned from our mistakes, and that's the important thing.''

Commissioner John Druzbick has some concerns.

"I believe we do have good procedures in place. We have employees that follow the rules,'' he said.

While noting that the board decided to waive some specific part of the rules, he said, "In this case, it seems like the administrator might have gone a little too far with it.''

Druzbick was concerned that Jarque was allowed to begin working before he had insurance in place and that, later, the need for insurance was dropped from his agreement with the county.

He also said Caskey had reviewed e-mails that indicated staff warned Hamilton that he could not do some of what he was doing.

"David, unfortunately, has been managing under crisis,'' Druzbick said. "Did he make mistakes because he was just trying to get this thing done?''

While Druzbick said he is forgiving of mistakes, he wants to be sure there is no repeat of the same problems again. "The real concern here is the legality of it,'' he added.

Commissioner Jim Adkins declined to comment because the matter is under review by law enforcement agencies.

Commissioner Dave Russell also was understanding of how the process could have gone off track.

"Under the circumstances, it was not only an emergency situation, but (also) the timing when there was an absence of a procurement director, it's understandable to me how those things happened,'' Russell said.

"No one can demonstrate to me a criminal act, not even malfeasance. There was no intent to defraud the public.''

Russell said Jarque was strongly supported by many community leaders. His willingness to work for free to oversee the Arc Nature Coast project was because he had a close family member who was a client there.

Russell said Hamilton took the criticism to heart and was working on a plan to tighten up the purchasing processes.

"Obviously, we all learn from our mistakes and he's learning from his mistakes,'' Russell said. "I'm certain we won't see something like this happen again.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando commissioners deeply divided on audit's critical findings 06/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 8:19pm]
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