In an unusual move, the research arm of the Florida Legislature has been directed by state leaders to audit Palm Beach County’s 2-year-old Commission on Ethics, officials said Tuesday.
The Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, known as OPPAGA, said Tuesday it has launched a lengthy review of the commission’s $500,000 budget, its operating procedures and the methods it uses to enforce the county’s ethics rules.
The request for the audit came from the Senate president’s office. Katie Betta, spokeswoman for the office, said Senate President Don Gaetz supported a request by Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington and chair of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, to look into the ethics commission.
Abruzzo said he wanted to make sure “the proper training and procedures are in place” at the commission.
“It is a good thing to audit government agencies, especially those that look over others. The commission should welcome the audit with open transparency as it adds credibility to the entire process. I am a strong supporter of our inspector general and ethics oversight in Palm Beach County. It is critical that proper training and procedures are in place. The audit will help disclose how the commission operates,” he said.
Megan Rogers, the ethics commission’s interim director, said it appears this is the first time OPPAGA has launched an audit of an individual county department.
“We have a $500,000 budget with five employees,” Rogers said. “Typically the local government issues have been related to transit authorities, improvement districts, coordination of fire departments between smaller counties, and general countywide tracking of costs.”
OPPAGA General Counsel Jan Bush, however, said it was “less common” for the the office to review county agencies than state ones, but “there are several examples over the years. It really depends on where the Legislature directs us.”
Bush pointed to a report completed in June that looked at Miami-Dade County’s discretionary documentary stamp tax.
She said OPPAGA plans to send a team of analysts to Palm Beach County to review the ethics commission records. The state review will likely take several weeks, and possible several months, to complete, she said.
Palm Beach County officials said Tuesday they were puzzled by the state’s audit. The county commission employs its own independent auditor to review county departments and programs.
Although functionally independent from general county government, the ethics commission and the county’s Office of Inspector General are essentially county departments. Both offices rely on the county to provide office space, open bank accounts, execute contracts and act as an employer.
The ethics commission and the inspector general post were created in 2009 as part of a sweeping ethics reform package intended to help the county shed its corruption-tainted image, after a spate of scandals that sent three county commissioners to federal prison. An amendment to the county’s charter approved by an overwhelming majority of county voters in 2010 extended the offices’ reach to all 38 cities and towns.
Rogers said the ethics commission’s five members are scheduled to discuss the audit during a meeting Thursday.
She also said she cautioned state officials not to focus on percentages when conducting the audit.
Last year, the commission office’s hotline received 560 calls, and the commission processed 84 advisory opinions, 16 sworn complaints and 33 inquiries, based on the anonymous or attributed unsworn tips and other information provided by county residents.
The ethics commission routinely dismisses complaints because it does not have the authority to investigate them, Rogers said.
“I certainly caution to look at things not necessarily through a percentage basis,” Rogers said.
Staff writer Dara Kam contributed to this story.