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During his first year in office, Mayor Alvin Brown went on an economic development trip to Brazil with Gov. Rick Scott. An audit said the city improperly allowed the JAX Chamber to pay for it. The city later reimbursed the chamber. Brown is shown with...
Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jul. 2, 201412:00 PM EST

Audit critical of Brown's early travel; office says problems have been fixed

by: David Chapman

Mayor Alvin Brown’s travel discrepancies from his first year in office are back in the spotlight.

A City Council Auditor’s report released Tuesday scrutinizes Brown and his staff’s travel for their first 16 months on the job, from July 1, 2011-Oct. 31, 2012.

Findings included the administration:

• Accepted prohibited payments from outside organizations

• Did not properly disclose travel as gifts

• Failed to file travel forms

•?Filed insufficient and inaccurate travel forms

•?Canceled and rescheduled trips, which cost more taxpayer dollars

• Broke city and state ethics rules several times.

The auditor’s office found 12 findings, two internal control weaknesses and two opportunities for improvement, all for the period that encompassed 82 trips the mayor and his staff took.

It was during that time when Brown’s administration was under the travel and disclosure guidance of former General Counsel Cindy Laquidara. Last year, a state panel disagreed with that guidance, which meant the administration had to make amends by paying back money and filing proper forms.

Since then, new policies have been put into place and a law passed for a better review of

outside funds paying for travel. The city’s ethics officer says there’s been a “heightened sense of awareness,” with no problems since.

Auditors began working on the report in 2012, but often waited for weeks, sometimes months, for information from Brown’s office.

With each issue outlined in the audit, there is a response from Brown and others, with assurances the problems are in the past or are being worked on.

A difference of opinion

Brown’s administration agreed with almost all of the auditor’s comments, but indicated many of the problems have been addressed.

For instance, JAX Chamber paid more than $2,300 for Brown to travel to Brazil in October 2011 as part of an economic development trip that included Gov. Rick Scott. According to the report, Brown’s acceptance of the gift violated state law.

The administration’s response was it was following an opinion from Laquidara that the chamber’s donation was a gift to the city, not Brown. That’s why he initially didn’t file personal gift disclosures to the Florida Commission on Ethics.

After the opinion was challenged by Carla Miller, the city’s ethics officer, Laquidara sought an opinion from the state. The commission ruled such a gift was to an individual, not the city.

In the Brazil trip, the chamber was reimbursed with taxpayer dollars and information was disclosed to the public gift registry.

Since that opinion, the city has been transparent and been in compliance, said Chris Hand, Brown’s chief of staff.

Now, outside funds can be deposited into a travel trust account or the city can be reimbursed by an outside party.

Miller said Tuesday her disagreement over the travel issue was “really from the beginning of the administration.”

Council Auditor Kirk Sherman called it a “really interesting assignment” given the conflicting opinions of Laquidara and Miller.

“You’ve got two legal minds butting heads along the way,” he said.

But, the basis for the auditor’s analysis reflects the commission’s ruling.

After the state opinion, council passed a bill that increased oversight even more, requiring the city’s ethics officer and Office of General Counsel to sign off on trips that used outside funds.

“Since April or May of last year, there hasn’t been one trip I would question or think is inappropriate,” said Miller.

Missing, delayed information

The audit’s overall conclusion wasn’t flattering. It cited a “lack of transparency” when it came to the travel period, partially because of insufficient documentation on file for many of those trips paid by outside organizations.

During the time analyzed, travel documentation was “insufficient” or “nonexistent” according to one of the findings. Of the 82 trips, 16 initially didn’t have documentation on file. Forms for 12 trips didn’t have a public purpose noted, or the purpose was vague. And documentation on file wasn’t sufficient to support payments made on some trips.

The written response from Brown’s office indicates that in spring 2012, the office initiated a review that ensures mayoral and staff travel is properly documented. A new office travel coordinator was hired and further reviews are now in place, both points that Hand stressed Tuesday after the audit was released.

Also in the conclusion, the report states it was “difficult” to obtain information.

Sherman said there were problems getting information on a timely basis, with his definition of timely being within a week or two.

He highlights the issue in one finding, saying his office sent an email asking for information Jan. 7, 2013, after repeated verbal requests. The mayor’s office provided the documentation March 25, a time when almost all of the testing and initial drafting of the report had been completed.

Hand said the administration responded as quickly as it could and chalked up any delay to an “internal miscommunication.”

Finding positives

The only finding the city did not agree with was related to travel forms being filed within a timely manner after a trip was taken. Instead, the response was a “partially agree.”

Ordinance code and travel regulations specify five days for those forms to be filed. The administration responded there inconsistencies within that and other forms.

Hand said one of the takeaways from the audit is that the city’s Accounting Division will work with others to determine how much time is appropriate to return such forms. Those recommendations will be in by the end of the month.

Hand said the administration has asked the division to work with department travel coordinators for further improvement.

He stressed the audit reflected roughly the first year of Brown’s term, when the administration was adhering to Laquidara’s opinion and any outside company that paid for a trip has been reimbursed. Likewise, he said Brown has filed all of his gift disclosures.

“We feel positive coming out of this,” Hand said.

Sherman said it was good that the administration responded to each point, seemingly correcting the issue.

As with most auditor reports, there will be a follow-up in about a year.

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