County: Audit finds no ‘fraud, corruption or criminal activities’

Putnam County officials can breathe a bit easier now that state officials are said to have found no major transgressions after conducting an operational audit that has taken more than a year to complete. 

According to a statement from County Attorney Stacie Manning, officials from the state Auditor General’s Office had an “exit interview” Thursday with members of county administration, Clerk of Courts Office, sheriff’s Office and a select few other county employees. 

While there are areas of improvement noted, Manning’s statement said, the most serious charges against the county, clerk’s office and sheriff’s office were meritless.

“We are happy to report that there will be no findings of fraud, corruption or criminal activities,” Manning said Thursday in a statement. “It is anticipated, based upon today’s meeting, that the report will address a number of areas where the auditors feel there should be improvement, such as documentation, written policies, asset tracking, etc.”

County Administrator Rick Leary said the auditing team didn’t provide county officials with a written report, but he expects the Auditor General’s Office to provide a hard copy of the report to the county within three to four weeks. 

Once the county receives the preliminary report, Leary said, local officials would have 30 days to respond to the state. After that, he said, state auditors will release its final report, the county’s response included. 

The auditing saga began Dec. 1, 2015, when then-state Rep. Charles Van Zant, current County Commission Chairman Larry Harvey and a retinue of local residents attended a state Joint Legislative Auditing Committee meeting in Tallahassee. 

During that meeting, local residents asked the committee to approve an audit on the county and city of Palatka, citing improper handling of funds and operations. Van Zant went as far as to compare Putnam County to Hampton – a town that, after state audit, was found to have violated numerous local, state and federal laws. 

Clerk of Court Tim Smith said he contacted Van Zant after the 2015 auditing committee meeting and expressed his intention of complying with state auditors. 

Van Zant’s references to Hampton – the clerk of which was arrested as a result of the town’s audit – weren’t lost on Smith, the local clerk of court said. While Van Zant never implied Smith or his employees should be arrested, Van Zant never shied away from mentioning the beleaguered Hampton clerk, Smith said.

“That whole time (since December 2015 meeting), there’s been this cloud of suspicion we’ve had to deal with,” Smith said, referencing his office. “I think there is some weight of suspicion that was lifted off this county that was unfairly put on us back in 2015.”

From the start, Putnam officials said they were confident their handlings of government funds and processes were not criminal, and welcomed the audit. 

After Thursday’s exit interview, Leary said some of the “housekeeping items” auditors mentioned came as no surprised given the information mentioned during the auditing process. 

“By and large, it’s … findings in a lot of areas we anticipated as we fielded questions and provided information to them during the 14 months that the audit was being done,” Leary said. 

Although Putnam residents requested an audit on the county, many of their accusations were against Leary, claiming he was domineering and railroaded then-commissioners and staff to follow through with his ideas. 

Leary – who said the auditors review operations from late-2014 to early-2016 – said he was relieved auditors found no evidence of criminal activity. But he expected this outcome, he said. 

“I think it’s certainly … in those areas, the findings are what I expected,” Leary said. “When there’s (no fraud, corruption or criminal activities) occurring, there’s none to be expected.”

One of the people who accused Leary of being domineering was Harvey, who was the only Putnam commissioner who attended the committee meeting in Tallahassee. 

At the time, he said his four colleagues on the board were “entrenched in doing things (Leary’s) way,” saying it would be difficult to break that grip.

On Thursday, Harvey said he felt good about the auditors’ findings and was happy transparency was provided to local residents. 

When he drove local residents to Tallahassee, Harvey said, his aim was not to damage the county, but to fulfill the wishes of his constituents. 

“My role was a little different,” Harvey said. “My role was to give the people what they wanted. … They deserve any transparency. It’s their government. As soon as we get these documents in hand, we will make that available.”

Harvey said he wants to use the auditors’ findings to put to bed any rumors of mismanagement and help move the county forward. 

“We clean up,” he said. “We move forward, and we make Putnam a better place.”

Sheriff’s Gator DeLoach echoed other officials’ excitement with auditors’ finding no criminal activity. 

The audit came at great expense to local and state taxpayers, DeLoach said, but he is thrilled the ordeal is near its end. 

Going forward, DeLoach said, he wants the sheriff’s office to resume its work without the cloud of doubt cast over it.

“I’m happy we can finally put that bit to bed and enforce the law like we’re supposed to,” he said. “There’s nothing (for the sheriff’s office) to respond to because, like I said, there were no findings against the sheriff’s office.”

Mike Gomez of the Auditor General’s Office did not return phone calls Thursday.