The financial affairs of Tax Collector Jimmy Harris’ last three years in office will be under carefully scrutiny by the county’s auditor, after county commissioners last Friday voted unanimously to order a forensic accounting review.
Expected to cost about $10,000, the forensic audit will cover the years beginning in 2014 and ending when Harris resigned April 3 after 24 years in office, following an arrest the previous weekend on a felony charge of engaging in sexual activity with a person age 16 or 17.
The audit by Roberson & Associates is necessary following “certain irregularities discovered by the independent auditors and the current Franklin County tax collector,” according to an Aug. 9 letter to the commissioners from Ralph Roberson, owner of the certified public accountant firm.
State Attorney Jack Campbell, who is conducting a criminal review of Harris’ books, said Monday that he did not specifically ask the county to conduct its own audit.
“I’m not surprised they did it. They’re probably just being prudent,” he said. “All I care about is criminal prosecution. As a county they have bigger issues. My focus is much more narrow.”
In his description of the scope of the county audit, Roberson said he, professional staffer Paul Marxsen and administrative staffer Jennifer Sheffield will conduct an “examination and reconciliation of certain deposits including cash, and check amounts with the bank and the tax collector records.
“The engagement will be conducted as an investigative procedure to determine the finding of irregularities of the cash receipt process” in the tax collector’s office, it said, noting that the findings will be available to the county commissioners, as well as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Office of Executive Investigations and other law enforcement agencies.
“We may be required to provide testimonials to law enforcement agencies, or the court,” the letter noted.
Campbell said that his office’s criminal investigation is being handled by experts within FDLE.
“FDLE is doing the investigative work that I’ll be relying on,” he said. “FDLE is who I’ve charged with it and I don’t tell FDLE how to do its investigation.”
Campbell said his office will not have a role in Roberson’s audit, but will consider carefully its findings once they are complete.
“I don’t know until we look,” he said. “We’re going to consider all information available to us. I’m not going to tell anybody outside law enforcement where we’re at until we’re ready to act.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Harris, who is represented by Tallahassee criminal attorney Matthew Willard, will have a plea hearing on the pending sexual misconduct case scheduled before Circuit Judge Terry Lewis.
Campbell would not comment on whether a possible plea bargain will emerge at next week’s hearing, nor would he say when he thought FDLE’s investigative work on the financial irregularities matter might be complete.
“The time frame is when they’re done. Obviously we had the hurricane,” he said.
“Generally I like to know as much as I can about a case and a criminal (before proceeding),” Campbell said. “This office wants to understand as much as we can so we can best determine what is justice and the appropriate resolution. We like to know as much as we can; I want to get as complete a picture as I can.”
In his letter to commissioners, Roberson said his office’s “findings and conclusions will be presented in an objective and unbiased manner.
“We are not aware of any conflict that would affect our ability to act impartially,” he wrote.
While Roberson estimate professional fees of about $10,000, he noted that “it is difficult to estimate the total time required to complete such an investigation, prepare reports and to anticipate additional work that may be required by the legal authorities.”
According to Tax Collector Richard Watson, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the office, a preliminary investigation found “altered deposit slips and non-validated checks, which were questionable.”
Harris, a Democrat, was elected without opposition in Nov. 2016 to his seventh consecutive term in office.
Watson, a Republican, will serve until at least fall 2018, when an election will be held to determine who will fill the office for a complete four-year term.