Riviera probe request coming

TALLAHASSEE State lawmakers are pushing for a grand jury to investigate a scathing audit of Riviera Beach and its Community Redevelopment Agency after a committee meeting on Monday exploded with accusations of wrongdoing between the mayor and city council.

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, co-chaired by Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, will send an official request to State Attorney Barry Krischer, who has received the audit but not acted on it, to look into questionable payments to consultants and possible fraud, Domino said.

 

Domino and others questioned, among other things, a $1.2 million payment ordered by Riviera Beach Mayor Michael Brown to Kimley-Horn and Associates, a West Palm Beach construction consultant, for services that were not documented.

Brown, whose office is largely ceremonial, and four city council members attended the committee meeting, where lawmakers demanded to know what Riviera Beach taxpayers got in return for at least $7 million in grants to redevelop blighted areas.

"How did this happen without any oversight by the CRA board, and what are you going to do about it?" Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach, repeatedly asked Riviera Beach City Manager William Wilkins.

"I don't know how it happened. I don't know," he finally responded.

Lawmakers could withhold state money from the city and the CRA but do not have authority to conduct a criminal investigation.

Brown told the committee that, despite the audit's findings that the CRA had accomplished little, it had helped to increase property values in the once economically depressed area.

But City Councilwoman Liz Wade threw a bombshell at Brown as the meeting ended, insisting on addressing the committee.

"A few of you are saying things like 'Where's the fraud? Where's the money?'

"If you think some of us have spent the money, then I will sign off on pushing the investigation forward. If you think that money was wasted, yes. I am one of the elected officials who said we have spent $7 million, and we don't have a cotton-picking thing to show for it," a livid Wade said after the committee unanimously voted to formally ask Krischer to investigate.

"I'm tired of hiding anybody, and I'm calling a spade a spade. We have done what we had to do. The CRA director that caused those problems is gone. The cheerleader that was leading us on with regards to how much he thought was right should not be sitting up here," Wade said, referring to Brown, who shook his head.

"The $1.2 million? A nonmember of the board pulled that check and gave it to a consultant without any backup. Our auditors then sent it back to us and said there's no documentation and there's no backup for this check."

Wade said Brown also pulled five checks the CRA, made up of the five city council members, had previously approved.

Domino, R-Jupiter, pointedly asked state auditor general audit manager James Dwyer whether his report indicated fraud or criminal behavior. Dwyer said the lack of documentation justifying the expenditures raises questions about whether they served a public purpose.

Mike Edmondson, Krischer's spokesman, said that prosecutors will review the committee's request. Edmondson stressed that the inquiry must rise to a criminal level in order for it to reach a grand jury.

"If it's simply to repeat the work of the auditors, that obviously would be a futile undertaking," Edmondson said. "However, if the auditing committee has specific concerns about criminal conduct that go beyond its findings, that would be something our office would look at."

City Council Chairwoman Ann Iles said she was disturbed by the committee's vote on the investigation but "if that's going to eliminate all of the speculation and the fingerpointing and all that kind of stuff, we would go through it to get all of that cleared up. I say go ahead with it."

Monday's accusations deepen the rift between Brown and a majority of the city council, three of whom are up for reelection on March 13.

After the meeting, Brown accused Wade of lying.

"What she said was total lies. Falsehood. There's a saying, when people get desperate you have to ask why. You look at minutes, discussions, the closed executive sessions.

"The person that was really bringing up all of these issues that are identified in the audit is me. Two years ago the politics changed so that three people started making decisions which are reflected in this audit," Brown said.