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Hillsborough County auditor fires only employee in ugly scene

TAMPA — Internal performance auditor Jim Barnes, clinging to his own job, fired his lone remaining employee Wednesday in an awkward scene at Hillsborough County Center.

He could soon be joining his former aide on the unemployment line, based on reactions from commissioners.

Barnes claims assistant auditor Billy Poulos had engaged in a pattern of unprofessional behavior. He worked to undermine Barnes with commissioners, Barnes said, and repeatedly got into unnecessarily testy confrontations with other employees.

"We need to mend bridges, not burn more of them," Barnes said. "I think I had to do it in the best interest of the county."

When Poulos declined to resign at his boss' request Wednesday, Barnes had him escorted from County Center by security and ordered the locks changed to the auditors' offices. Poulos says Barnes fired him in a desperate gesture to save his own job.

Poulos claims Barnes significantly altered a recent analysis that concluded that Office Depot overbilled the county. He said that Barnes vastly overstated the extent of the overbilling in the final report he presented to commissioners.

And, yes, Poulos says he's been sharing his concerns with commissioners.

"He came up with these sensational findings," Poulos said. "He can't substantiate them. He's using me as a scapegoat because he knows he's going to lose his job next."

Barnes denies that, accusing Poulos of trying to go around him to talk to commissioners in a manner that was insubordinate. He said he's received complaints from county employees of abusive treatment by Poulos, and that he recently got into a heated and profane exchange with an aide to commission Chairman Ken Hagan.

The aide, Rich Reidy, said the exchange was mutually heated, though not profane. Reidy said he had confronted Poulos about the release of the Office Depot audit to news media before giving it to commissioners, a recurring gripe they've had with Barnes.

"It was water off a duck 30 seconds after it happened," Reidy said.

Commissioners did fault Barnes' work on the audit when he presented it to them a week ago. At that meeting, a majority of commissioners moved to fire him, though they didn't have the five votes required under the county's charter to do so.

They already have voted to strip his office of auditing duties, due to questions raised about his past work, farming the job to outside firms. A recent peer review found that Barnes has not met accepted auditing standards.

Poulos claims that the Office Depot analysis he did with former senior assistant Ken Gentile, who left a month ago for another job, documented about $150,000 worth of overbilling. Barnes' final report alleged $200,000 in overcharges during a six-month period that, if extrapolated over time, could climb to as much as $1 million. Poulos says that leap can't be made.

Three commissioners, Mark Sharpe, Rose Ferlita and Ken Hagan, voted to fire Barnes at last week's meeting. Jim Norman, another past critic, was absent.

Now, commissioners who have been supportive of Barnes are retreating from him.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he has read both Poulos' initial Office Deport report, and Barnes' rewrite, and found the work of Poulos more credible. It came with clear documentation justifying the findings, he said. He is asking for a review of how Poulos' firing was handled.

Al Higginbotham was meeting with Poulos in the commissioner's office Wednesday when three security guards showed up with Barnes. They escorted Poulos out of the building in a scene that Higginbotham found off-putting. "It was conduct that was very unbecoming of a director, of Mr. Barnes," Higginbotham said. "In all my years of professional experiences, I've never seen anything like this."

Commissioner Kevin White, who first requested the Office Depot review, is asking for another discussion of the findings next week. He said he hopes Poulos will show up to give his account of what can be proved.

White sounded an ominous tone. "I don't think we'll have this situation to deal with much longer," he said.

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

Hillsborough County auditor fires only employee in ugly scene 05/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 12:01am]
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