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Hillsborough County auditor set to start digging

Michelle Leonhardt is Hillsborough’s internal auditor.

Michelle Leonhardt is Hillsborough’s internal auditor.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's first internal performance auditor quit after receiving poor reviews of her management abilities and completing few actual audits.

Commissioners fired the second after a heap of controversy, from public bouts with his employees to criticism of the few audits he performed even as he repeatedly sought pay raises.

Both struggled to negotiate the challenges of having seven elected bosses telling them what to do by siccing them on agencies or offices that met their disfavor.

The county's latest auditor says she's not focused on what happened before her arrival in April. Instead, Michelle Leonhardt is focused on achieving what voters conceived when they approved creating the job more than a decade ago: helping the county operate more efficiently and effectively.

"I'm moving forward and it's a new day," Leonhardt said. "I just don't envision things from the past repeating themselves."

Leonhardt, 45, has received little attention since taking over as internal auditor at Hillsborough County Center. She arrived after working for seven years, most recently as internal audit director, for WellCare Health Plans.

She inherits an office that will have two other auditors and a budget of $473,373, including $150,000 to hire outside firms as needed.

In recent months, she has been working to hire her staff, since former auditor Jim Barnes fired his workers before getting dismissed himself late in 2010. She has secured software to assist with the auditing.

Leonhardt has been meeting with other county officials to learn about the various public services and programs they oversee. And she has been developing an audit plan for next year that she hopes to provide to county commissioners this month after doing what is known as a risk assessment of county programs.

"The first thing that I observed is that she actually knows what she's doing," said County Administrator Mike Merrill. "She's listening to directors to understand what they do rather than assuming that she knows. She's very thoughtful and deliberate. So she's learned good lessons from the past."

Commissioners took nearly three years to hire a replacement for Barnes, essentially putting the office on pause. In between, they hired a consultant to recommend ways to improve how the office functions, some of which involved tweaks voters approved in 2010.

Among the most significant changes was appointing an advisory committee of peers to vet the auditor's work plan and audits as well as the assignments she gets from commissioners. The job title was changed to reflect a broadening of the types of audits that can be performed. Commissioners also are now limited to three individual audit requests a year that take no more than 20 hours of work each.

Leonhardt finished the first of those a week ago, a review of the county's Law Library that found the office wasn't paying some of its bills for things such as periodicals in a timely fashion.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who requested the review, said Leonhardt stuck to the task requested and quickly prepared a dispassionate assessment of what was happening and suggestions to address it.

"It was done without any personal assault," said Higginbotham. "It was done in a way that we would expect audits to be done."

Leonhardt is paid $150,010 a year. She said she applied for the job in part for the opportunity to oversee her own auditing operation and build it from the ground up.

While she is not interested in assessing her predecessors' work, she did discuss her principles for good auditing.

Leonhardt promises transparency in her dealings with the people whose offices or programs she audits. Her audit subjects will know the findings before they are presented publicly and have the opportunity to discuss them and any recommendations put forward.

The goal is not necessarily to find wrongdoing, per se. It's to ensure that there are safeguards and controls in place to prevent wrongdoing.

"You want to find things before they become a big deal," she said. "It's not just finding out if things have gone wrong but making things so they can't go wrong."

That said, she emphasizes the importance of skepticism and favoring objective testing of information and the way tasks are carried out.

"Data doesn't lie," Leonhardt said. "That's why you test."

She was a relative newcomer at WellCare when it was raided by the FBI six years ago. Its former top executives were ultimately found guilty of health care fraud. Leonhardt said the company is totally different today and said her time there was a "very positive experience."

One belief reinforced by the raid: "Trust is not a control. It's always the people you least expect doing something wrong."

So far, she is encountering favorable reviews from those with whom she has interacted at the county. Still, her first three projects have been handed to her by commissioners or Merrill.

In addition to the Law Library review, Leonhardt has been asked to audit the county's embattled Homeless Recovery program and has devised a plan for auditing the Public Transportation Commission. The latter is not technically part of county government, though some commissioners sit on its board.

Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has been critical of Leonhardt's two predecessors, said the PTC and Homeless Recovery simply are in need of serious outside scrutiny.

"I can't think of two areas that could better benefit from her expertise," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough County auditor set to start digging 11/30/13 [Last modified: Saturday, November 30, 2013 10:19pm]
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