Palm Beach County’s first inspector general says she is so crippled by court rulings, budget restraints and push-back from the county and many of its cities that she can’t do the corruption-fighting job that voters envisioned for the 3-year-old post.
The roadblocks have left Inspector General Sheryl Steckler with half her budget, half a staff and no legal standing to defend her office in court. The most recent blow was a series of court rulings in a lawsuit filed by 14 cities that don’t want to pay for her oversight.
The rulings prevent the inspector general’s office from defending itself in the suit, leaving the county attorney’s office to represent Steckler and her staff – even as County Administrator Bob Weisman has called for Steckler to be fired at the end of her contract next year.
Steckler said the suit has left her office with $1.6 million of the $3 million it needs to watchdog the county and its 38 cities and towns and other agencies under her purview. Without that money, she has been able to hire just 23 of the 40 staffers she says she needs to study contracts, conduct audits and sniff out corruption.
“Probably the most profound issue,” Steckler says: Her unsuccessful bid to parry the cities’ suit threatens her ability to sue local governments and officials who refuse to cooperate with her investigations and turn over records.
The legal questions come as criticism of her office mounts on a number of fronts.
The Solid Waste Authority last month accused the inspector general’s office of releasing a flawed audit, a claim Steckler has denied.
At least one city – Boca Raton — has scoffed at a request from Stecker’s staff to watch a closed-door procurement meeting, saying the office cannot independently sue.
At the same time, Weisman accused Steckler of wasting taxpayer money in her failed attempt to intervene in the lawsuit over municipalities’ contribution requirements. But without the ability to represent her office in court, Steckler said Friday, the watchdog post will never be independent.
“I think someone is going to eventually try to stop us from doing our job and we are going to have to file suit,” she said. “It is just a matter of when we are going to have to go back to court and determine, do they get an independent office?”
The Office of Inspector General was created in 2009 as part of an ethics reform package to help the county shed its corruption-tainted image. Scandals that had sent three Palm Beach County commissioners to federal prison rocked the county’s conscience. An amendment to the county charter, approved by voters in 2010, extended the office’s reach to all 38 cities and towns.
But disputes over who should pay for the oversight have proven a major sticking point. Fifteen cities and towns joined to sue the county in 2011, arguing that a requirement that each locality must pay a fee to help cover Steckler’s budget was unconstitutional. Wellington later dropped out of the suit, leaving 14 plaintiffs.
The county is defending itself in the suit and, by extension, representing Steckler’s office.
County administrators say that’s because Steckler’s office, although functionally independent, is a county department.
Steckler relies on the county to provide office space, open bank accounts, execute contracts and act as an employer. And like other departments, administrators say, Steckler and her staff must be represented by the county attorney’s office.
Weisman wants her out
But Weisman, even as his staff has been assigned to defend Steckler, has been openly hostile to her.
And Steckler and her in-house attorney Rob Beitler have been critical of his county attorney’s office, alleging that its legal maneuvers in the case have not been in her office’s best interest. That’s why Steckler asked a judge to let her intervene in the lawsuit and bring in her own attorney to represent her interests.
The courts denied the request. She exhausted her final appeal last month.
Despite his complaints about Steckler, Weisman insisted the county attorney’s office is working to get the inspector general’s office the money it needs to do its job.
“We want to win this case badly,” Weisman said. “I feel personally double-crossed by the cities, that they agreed to this payment formula and now they are trying to kill it.”
Beitler disagrees. He said the county has kept him in the dark, refusing to share details about its defense of the suit.
What’s more, he said, the county has not demanded that the cities and towns that are not included in suit be forced to pay for the inspector general’s services.
Money for IG withheld
Beitler also criticizes the county for not taking action against Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock, who has refused to release payments from those 24 municipalities. Bock, who serves as the accountant and financial manager over all county money, has argued that she could be held liable for releasing the payments if a court determines the municipalities were not required to fund the inspector general’s office.
When Steckler tried to hire an outside attorney, County Attorney Denise Nieman denied the request.
“The county does not hire attorneys to sue itself,” Nieman wrote in an email to Beitler on Dec. 15, 2011. “Setting aside the absurdity factor, it seems to be a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
The county attorney’s office estimated it spent 421 hours trying to block Steckler’s push to intervene in the suit. Nieman had argued Steckler’s efforts would have far-reaching consequences on other county departments if approved by the courts – essentially allowing other department directors to start their own litigation.
Nieman’s office charges revenue-generating departments, including the airport and water utilities, $125 an hour for its services. At that rate, the office would have collected $52,625 for its work on Steckler’s intervention request.
The inspector general’s office said it spent about $300 on the effort to intervene.
The county charter requires that the inspector general’s office “be funded at a minimum in an amount equal to one quarter of one percent of contracts of the county and all other governmental entities subject to the authority of the inspector general.”
This year, that total is $3 million. The county is required to pay $1.6 million of that amount.
The cities’ share is $1.4 million. But with Bock holding back even payments by willing cities, Steckler has just $1.6 million to operate.
At the end of each budget year, Steckler is required to recalculate each city’s or town’s share based on her office’s actual expenses. The less the office receives, the less it can do and the less each entity pays.
“Right now, there is no incentive for anyone to expedite the lawsuit,” Beitler said.
The inspector general’s office warned that the case could take years to resolve. Meanwhile Steckler will have to make do.
Steckler said she has hired just four auditors and one audit manager. Her investigative department has eight employees.
Yet her staff oversees the sprawling county government, 38 municipalities, the Solid Waste Authority and the Children’s Services Council.
Weisman said Steckler’s legal challenge has only delayed a resolution in the case. He has called the push an “outrageous legal powerplay” and said Steckler should be terminated when her contract expires next year.
“There is going to be an IG,” Weisman said. “There needs to be a different IG.”
Weisman said many residents expected Steckler’s office to recover “big dollar amounts” but that hasn’t happened.
“Most people thought the IG would have an impact on county commission conduct in office, like how they vote on controversial zoning matters or perhaps even political contributions, but it has no effect at all on those,” Weisman wrote in an email response to an inquiry from a resident last week.
“I thought it would serve a useful investigative role for us but that hasn’t gone well either. It may have kept an employee or vendor honest who would try to do something illegal otherwise. Who knows.”
Ethics activists fighting for the inspector general’s office’s independence plan to attend Tuesday’s county commission meeting to sound off about Weisman’s criticism. They have called on the county commission to reprimand Weisman for speaking out against Steckler.
West Palm Beach Attorney David Baker, who helped pushed for the creation of the inspector general’s office, said Weisman’s criticism is “disappointing.”
Residents want an independent inspector general’s office, Baker said. Blocking the office from representing itself in court “tears right at the heart” of Steckler’s sovereignty, he added.
“I don’t know what the county attorney’s office would say if there were a dispute between the county and the inspector general’s office with respect to review of records,” Baker said. “If there is one, it seems to me that the county attorney has quite a quandary.”
Assistant County Attorney Lenny Berger said there are safeguards in place that prevent government officials from interfering with Steckler’s investigations. Those who violate those rules could face criminal charges.
“We put in as much as we could to minimize any interference from us,” Berger said. “The fact that we made it a crime to not cooperate with her was about the best we could do.”
County officials have said the only way for Steckler’s office to be truly independent is to make it its own special taxing district, a major political undertaking.
Steckler and her staff haven’t gone that far. For now, they say they are focused on doing their job and ferreting out fraud, waste and abuse.
“It really is in the people’s hands,” Steckler said. “You can’t just set offices up and expect ethics reforms to happen. It is going to take the community to demand for what they want. They have to want it.”
Please view the original article by Jennifer Sorentrue of THE PALM BEACH POST.