Questions remain following Fort Lauderdale commission firing longtime auditor

The mayor of Fort Lauderdale used some tough language for those who file anonymous complaints against city employees, whose salaries paid for with residents’ tax dollars.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The mayor of Fort Lauderdale used some tough language for those who file anonymous complaints against city employees, whose salaries paid for with residents’ tax dollars.

It happened during a heated meeting last week which led to the firing of the city’s longtime, soon to retire, independent auditor after questioning why he was investigating a complaint received against the police chief, claiming he’s working a second job on the taxpayer’s dime.

And now, a national group representing internal auditors is weighing in on the abrupt move to fire 16-year veteran auditor John Herbst, who had an unblemished record and told commissioners for years he’s conducting independent investigations without any objection.

Questions remain on the exact reason Fort Lauderdale’s City Commission decided to suddenly fire its longtime independent auditor, but we know the unexpected move came after a spirited non-agenda discussion about the decision to launch an investigation into an anonymous complaint that Chief of Police Larry Scirotto was possibly working a second job as a NCAA referee while on city time.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis disparaged the complainant.

“Cowardice alone is what motivated this,” the mayor said during the meeting, challenging the auditor’s authority.

Herbst explained why in his view, the complaint was credible.

“We have screen shots of Telestaff, which is their time keeping system, which shows that it was a workday for him, and I have got screen shots of him attending a NCAA sporting event at the same time,” he said. “That’s a credible situation.”

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

The city’s website states that audit activities shall remain free of influence.

“Under the charter, the city auditor has the authority to investigate any matter or city business,” Herbst said during the meeting.

“Right, but that comes at the direction of the commission who decides what is city business and what is not city business,” the mayor replied.

“No sir, it does not, the city charter does not say that the city commission establishes audit work plan or determine what is appropriate for the city auditor to look at,” Herbst said.

“I disagree with you,” replied Trantalis.

In an interview with Local 10 News days after the meeting, reporter Christina Vazquez asked the mayor why the city wouldn’t want to pursue an allegation such as this.

“Because situations like that are addressed by the city manager, the police chief works for the city manager, it was intended for the city manager to make that investigation or to make that determination, it was totally outside the auditor’s purview,” Trantalis said.

The mayor’s interpretation of city charter is that the auditor is there to take assignments from the city commission, not conduct independent investigations.

“Our auditor that we hire is to handle matters that we want investigated, that the commission decides to go forward,” he said.

The Mayor has positioned the auditor’s investigation into the police chief complaint as a ‘secret’ investigation. Last week the Mayor told Local 10 News that the “auditor was engaged in activities that we did not know anything about, we did not authorize, basically a secret investigation that he was involved with.”

In an email to Mayor and Commission after the termination vote, Herbst wrote that the “implication that I undertook a ‘secret’ investigation” is “false” adding that the City Manager and the City Attorney’s Office “were both apprised of the forensic investigation from the very beginning.”

City Attorney Alain Boileau confirmed with Local 10 News that he “was apprised of the forensic investigation early on.”

City Manager Chris Lagerbloom told Local 10 News he was “apprised as well.”

During the February 15, 2022 commission meeting Herbst outlined some of the complaint-driven investigations and independent investigations his office has conducted over the past 16 years without incident that he said were similar to the one the Mayor, and Commisioner Steven Glassman, seemed to object to prior to the commission 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.

Hired in 2006, Herbst, a CPA, “has held the position of independent City Auditor since its creation through a charter revision in 2004,” according to the city’s website.

During the commission 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 four months’ severance per the terms of his contract.

In a statement to Local 10 News, the the Institute of Internal Auditors described the mayor’s comments as “troubling” and in conflict with the independent watchdog role of the city auditor, adding:

“While management has input into the internal audit process, they do not control it.”

Full statement from the Institute of Internal Auditors:

Full statement from the Institute of Internal Auditors regarding firing of Fort Lauderdale interdependent auditor. (Institute of Internal Auditors)

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."