State attorney looking at county clerk’s actions

Monroe County State Attorney Catherine Vogel said Tuesday that her office is investigating possible wrongdoing in the County Clerk’s Office for the destruction of government e-mails and possibly other documents.

“We’re looking into whether there is criminal activity. I can’t say there is any criminal activity,” Vogel said, adding her lead investigator, Chris Weber, is on the case.

It’s the latest to come out of revelations brought out by County Attorney Bob Shillinger that e-mails were being deleted just days following Clerk Amy Heavilin’s loss in the Aug. 30 Republican primary election to Kevin Madok, who will face former Clerk’s Office attorney Ron Saunders in the Nov. 8 general election.

Heavilin was elected in 2012. The county clerk does not report to any supervisor because she is a constitutional officer hired by voters but the Clerk’s Office is the de facto accountant for county government.

Shillinger said Heavilin also fired Lanigan & Associates, an accounting firm that helped the county prepare financial statements for the county. She wrote to John Keillor of Lanigan & Associates that her office would not renew the contract “for budget reasons as well as my loss in the primary election yesterday.”

In a Sept. 2 letter to Heavilin, Shillinger threatened to ask Gov. Rick Scott’s office to suspend Heavilin if the contract was not immediately renewed. He wrote that she “seriously jeopardized the county’s finances. Your arbitrary decision not to sign the engagement letter constitutes malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and/or incompetency” as defined by state law.

He wrote that she “mentioned ‘budgetary reasons as well as [your] loss in the primary election’ as the basis not to use the firm’s services. Neither ‘reason’ has merit. Indeed, it is our understanding that the funds necessary for engagement of the Lanigan firm have been specifically budgeted.”

Lanigan & Associates prepares the county’s state-required “comprehensive annual financial report” that closes out a budget year; the next one is due to the state on March 31, 2017. “From the county’s perspective, our biggest concern with this was this accounting firm was going to be canceled and her staff was going to do them and had no experience,” Shillinger said Tuesday.

In his letter to Heavilin, he wrote that “prior findings in the CAFR have made it abundantly clear that your staff is neither prepared nor trained to perform these duties in addition to their regular responsibilities. Because prior audits have repeatedly identified high turnover among your staff and lack of training as a material weakness and/or significant deficiency, I have no confidence in your ability to perform these functions without the assistance of competent outside help.”

He also wrote that because her “conduct has materially jeopardized the interests” of the County Commission, his office has to withdraw from eight lawsuits in which his office was representing the Clerk’s Office. “Please arrange to retain substitute counsel as soon as possible,” Shillinger wrote.

As for the e-mails, Heavilin, who could not be reached for comment, “was deleting e-mails that were not read by her,” Shillinger said. They were sent from county employees, not her staff, to her, or she was copied on them. The county workers started receiving receiving automated e-mail receipts two days after the election.

The e-mails, few than 200 but some dating to 2014, included memos of understanding with other offices, “grants, the day-to-day work that the clerk performs in respect to county finances. She explained she was preparing to vacate the office, she was cleaning up. You can get rid of extra copies, duplicates. I don’t have any information that suggests she deleted originals.”

Still, he wrote in his letter to Heavilin that state law “requires a clerk to notify the [County Commission] in writing a reasonable time in advance of the destruction of records. The action is also potentially a violation of Florida public records law.”