Report alleges city overpaid employees; engaged in fraudulent billing

Fort Lauderdale agency under scrutiny for misconduct

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The city of Fort Lauderdale's Department of Sustainable Development engaged in a scheme to overpay workers by nearly $200,000 and then tried to cover up the ensuing budget shortfall from elected officials and the public, according to an investigation conducted by city auditor John Herbst.

"The [city auditor's office] has determined that senior management … engaged in misconduct," Herbst wrote in his report. "The circumstances surrounding this situation represent a complete breakdown in 'tone at the top.'"

While the report is light on the names of those implicated in wrongdoing, Herbst said the workers were overpaid at times nearly twice the rate of the approved contract with Miami-based outside employment firms Albion Staffing Solutions and TransHire Employment Group.

Some of those workers were paid $22.50 an hour -- which was supposed to be reserved for "accountants" -- when they should have been making only $11.56 as office assistants. In all, the department overpaid $188,000 to employees in the Albion contract alone but supplied no such estimate for the TransHire deal.  

"When the overpayments led to unpaid invoices an attempt was made to cover up the overspending by delaying payment until the subsequent fiscal year," Herbst wrote.

The department also prepared an agenda item back in August and submitted a request for $147,301 due to overspending, but allegedly tried to hide the actual reason for the shortfall, claiming it was due to an "increased workload."

"The agenda item was drafted so as to create the impression that the overspending was a result of managing an increased workload … rather than disclose the fact that the department was paying up to double the contractual rate for clerical services," Herbst wrote.  

Commissioners are not happy about it and are expected to discuss the matter in detail for the first time at a special meeting scheduled at City Hall for noon Tuesday.

"We found out that someone was cooking the books," Commissioner Dean Trantalis said. "I feel embarrassed as a city that we would engage in such practices."

An attempt to interview Jenni Morejon, the director of the Department of Sustainable Development, was unsuccessful as staffers said she was "booked for the day."

Adding to the trouble, Albion has filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging it stiffed the company $187,000 in unpaid invoices.

"The staffing company has now sued the city and is looking for compensation and the whole thing blew up," Trantalis said. "We have a city to run. We don't need this nonsense."