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Office Depot billing disputed

TAMPA — Office Depot may have overcharged Hillsborough County $1 million since February 2007.

That's the preliminary conclusion of a report sent last week to Hillsborough County commissioners from internal performance auditor Jim Barnes.

An exact figure will require further analysis, Barnes said. In the meantime, Barnes recommended that the county stop purchasing from Office Depot and, if the figures hold true, seek a refund. Hills­borough piggybacks on a state contract with Office Depot to buy supplies.

Office Depot, based in Boca Raton, has been under fire from governments throughout the country who say it charged them more for products than was agreed upon in contracts.

The city of Clearwater wants a $166,000 refund from Office Depot for overbilling uncovered in an audit completed in October.

An audit in San Francisco determined the company had overcharged that city $5.57 million on an $18 million contract.

The Florida attorney general's economic crimes division launched an investigation of Office Depot in May 2008 for "bait and switch overcharging" of governments, setting low prices for items and then publishing catalog and website information that leads purchasing agents to higher-priced items.

In a statement, Office Depot said Barnes' audit contains "material errors" — and in fact the county was undercharged about $4,246 on sales of about $4 million from February 2007 to December 2009.

A review last year by the Hillsborough County clerk of the circuit court concluded that the county had been properly billed.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White pushed for the audit of Hillsborough's dealings with Office Depot.

"What Barnes has found is consistent with what other governments have been saying all across the country," White said. "The wise thing for Office Depot to do would be to just fess up and admit to their practices and go ahead and reimburse these governments they've been bilking."

Office Depot has blamed the billing controversy on a former employee, David Sherwin, who since being fired from the company has pressed government officials to examine their Office Depot purchases.

In its statement, the company described Sherwin as "a disgruntled former employee bent on promulgating false and misleading information about Office Depot."

Nonetheless, some government officials have heeded Sherwin's advice and in some cases found problems.

An an earlier review, city of Tampa purchasing officials said they saw no issues with Office Depot billings. But now the city's internal auditor is taking a closer look.

"Other localities have found discrepancies, so we thought it was prudent to go ahead and conduct our own audit," said City Attorney Chip Fletcher.

In Pinellas County, Mark Woodard, chief assistant county administrator, told county commissioners earlier this month that a review of Office Depot billings showed no irregularities, but internal auditors at the Pinellas County clerk of courts may take further action.

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Office Depot billing disputed 04/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 12:23am]
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