Fort Lauderdale fires veteran auditor after probe of new police chief

Fort Lauderdale commissioners’ late Tuesday evening vote took seconds, and just like that, it put an end to John Herbst’s 16 years of service as the city auditor with a 60-day notice.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Fort Lauderdale commissioners’ late Tuesday evening vote took seconds, and just like that, it put an end to John Herbst’s 16 years of service as the city auditor with a 60-day notice.

The abrupt firing came after an audit of Chief Larry Scirotto’s work hours — when he was on duty and off duty — as he worked a second job as a National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball referee. Scirotto took over Aug. 16, 2021.

“We received an anonymous complaint that the chief was engaged in secondary employment at the same time he was supposed to be on duty so we had an obligation to investigate that,” Herbst said.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean J. Trantalis challenged Herbst’s authority and argued he is there to take assignments from the commission and not to conduct independent investigations. Herbst said the city’s charter shows otherwise.

“Mayor, in the 16 years I have never had a commissioner say I should or should not investigate anything. This would be the first time this has ever happened in my tenure here in the city,” Herbst said, also adding in an e-mail that the city manager and city attorney were aware of the probe from the beginning.

. (.)

On Friday, Trantalis described friction over the chief investigation as a tipping point.

“It was probably best to part company,” Trantalis said. “There has been some frustration over the years and it seemed to come to a head that night.

“It was basically a secret investigation that he was involved with.”

Herbst pushed back against the mayor calling the investigation a secret in an email sent to the mayor and commissioners on Thursday, adding that “The City Manager and City Attorney’s Office were both apprised of the forensic investigation from the very beginning.”

When Local 10 News asked a police spokesperson if the chief was working a second job on city time they replied simply “no.”

Herbst also said his office was impartial, independent, professional and he and his staff don’t pick winners or losers. During his time investigating fraud, waste and abuse, Herbst had an unblemished record.

“We are not part of anyone’s agenda,” Herbst said.

He is expected to soon finish his investigation into the complaint about the chief and he plans to hand the report to the commission before he departs.

Local 10 News’ Christina Vasquez asked Trantalis if it sends a message to future auditors that they will not be independent, that instead their job and investigations into complaints will be at the whims of whoever is sitting on the dais.

“Our auditor that we hire is there to handle matters that we want investigated,” the mayor replied.

The Institute of Internal Auditors released the following statement:

“The Institute of Internal Auditors (The IIA) has learned that the City Commissioners of Fort Lauderdale, Florida recently voted to terminate one of our members, John Herbst, after 16 years of employment as the City Auditor. The stated reason cited for the abrupt termination was that the City Auditor was conducting an investigation of the city’s police chief based on an anonymous complaint.

“In the course of publicly discussing the decision, Mayor Dean J. Trantalis stated, ‘Our auditor, that we hire, is to handle matters that we want investigated.’ This statement is troubling and conflicts with the independent watchdog role the City Auditor plays, as documented in the City Auditor’s Office Charter. The charter states:

‘All audit activities shall remain free of influence by any element in the organization, including matters of audit selection, scope, procedures, frequency, timing, or report content to permit maintenance of an independent and objective mental attitude necessary in rendering reports.’

“While management has input into the internal audit process, they do not control it. The IIA strongly believes that an independent audit function in government helps protect taxpayer dollars and ensures that governments are transparent and accountable to the public. We urge the Mayor and the City of Fort Lauderdale to affirm the need for independence in the City Auditor role.”

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

  • A ‘credible’ complaint: During the meeting the Mayor used the word “cowardice” to describe an anonymous complainant. He also asked how the auditor deemed the anonymous tip his office received as credible. Herbst explained that when “we have screen shots” of the police department’s “time keeping system that shows that it was a work day for him and I have screen shots of him attending a NCAA sporting event at the same time that is a credible situation.”
  • Hired in 2006, Herbst, a CPA, is the only auditor the city has ever had. He built the department from the ground up. “has held the position of independent City Auditor since its creation through a charter revision in 2004.” https://www.fortlauderdale.gov/government/departments-a-h/city-auditor-s-office/city-auditor
  • During Tuesday’s meeting he outlined some of the complaint-driven investigations and independent investigations his office has conducted over the past 16 years with out incident that he said were similar to the one the Mayor, and Commissioner Glassman, seemed to object to at Tuesday’s meeting before suddenly voting to terminate his contract. “We had an almost identical instance last year where my office received a complaint about the interim Chief which we also investigated and we brought that to your attention,” Herbst told the commission, “and we brought that forward to you as a final report, there was no objection to the report at that point in time.” Herbst added the findings of that report were that the interim Chief had not violated the city’s policies of nepotism.
  • The Commission asked about the city’s Office of Professional Standards and whether that office should have received the anonymous complaint against the Chief, likened to a whistleblower complaint. During the meeting Herbst said while his office investigates fraud, and misuse of taxpayer funds, which is alleged in the complaint under investigation that the Chief was working a second job while taxpayers were paying for him to be on the clock, the Office of Professional Standards investigates “work violations” rather than fraud.
  • During the meeting Herbst said he was planning to retire in the coming months. He also said he would be willing to drop the investigation they were objecting to. They fired him anyway. He was given a 60-day notice and 4-months severance per the terms of his contract. “Jon said he was planning to leave anyway,” the Mayor said today, “he said by the end of the year he was planning to depart. Jon has really performed some great work over the years we can’t take that away from him, but I think we came to a point in time where we all decided it was time, now we can go our separate ways.”
  • In 2012 when City Commission passed a consent resolution to renew the city auditor’s employment contract it is stated: “All members of the Commission commended the City Auditor on his job performance.” The city did not have any record of any disciplinary actions since his first date of hire. https://fortlauderdale.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=1196993&GUID=6538C061-9330-45A6-86B2-5F6DA9669A44&Options=ID
  • Employment Contract:
  • Link to Feb. 15 meeting: https://youtu.be/k3QoDzDhFEc
  • Vice Mayor Heather Moraitis Statement: “Members of the media and residents have inquired about my absence during the vote to dismiss the City Auditor. I left at the end of the night after discussing all properly noticed and scheduled agenda items. I did not stay for the 7 walk on resolutions relating to legislation in Tallahassee. I did not know we would discuss terminating the City Auditor. I would have voted to keep the City Auditor, although that would not have changed the outcome of the vote.”

BELOW - Email Herbst sent to Mayor and Commission on Thursday:

Mayor and Commissioners,

As you are all aware, I am an at-will employee of the city. As such, it is your right to terminate me with a majority vote of the Commission and you chose as a body to do that on Tuesday. I accepted your decision with grace and without emotion or anger. This is a professional relationship between the Commission as the employer and myself as the employee and I have treated it as such. Accordingly, I have turned down requests from several news outlets asking me to speculate on the personal motives of the individual commissioners that voted for my termination. I expected the same in return.

You can imagine my dismay when I read the comments in today’s Sun Sentinel article regarding my conduct, motives and professionalism.

“This whole episode is very unorthodox,” Trantalis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Wednesday. “We’ve never had an auditor go rogue and engage in a secret investigation without the authority of the commission.”

“I think this is part of an effort to embarrass the chief because there are people in the department who are trying to undermine his authority.”

I had the honor of serving for 16 years as the City Auditor. During that time, I conducted numerous audits/investigations in the same fashion as this one that the Commission took exception to. A report of each of these prior audits/investigations was given to the Commission, and at no time was there ever a question or a comment as to whether I had the ability or right to have conducted those audits. Not once during all those years have I asked the Commission to approve an audit in advance. Up until this specific forensic audit/investigation, this has been the standard operating practice and was accepted by the Commission.

Calling me “rogue” is both defamatory and impugns my professional reputation. It is going to cause me significant economic damage by limiting my ability to seek future employment. It is an inappropriate action by you as my employer. Finally, the implication that I undertook a “secret” investigation is also false. The City Manager and City

Attorney’s Office were both apprised of the forensic investigation from the very beginning.

I have not maligned the Commission in any way and respectfully request that you refrain from maligning my credibility in return.

John Herbst, CPA, CGFO, CGMA
City Auditor
City of Fort Lauderdale


About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."