Published May 3, 2011

TWISler Breakdown: Sarasota’s incompetence problem

It’s pretty clear after Sarasota’s recent uncovering of massive amounts of fraud throughout the county purchasing department, that this city either views incompetence as a prerequisite skill set for employment, or sweeping things under the rug is such standard operation procedure that we need to change County Administrator Jim Ley’s job title to “Custodian”. At this point, that’s not sounding like too bad of an idea, unless we’re planning on giving janitors tax money-funded credit cards. Then that could turn out to be a considerable waste of money.

Our newly discovered wrap sheet reveals a string of shady county credit card expenditures and no bid contracts dating back at least four years. It’s like our very own Iraq war contracting debacle, right here in little ol’ Sarasota! The fun began with the initial warning signs coming from a mid-manager in county government named Mark Utz back in late 2007. Utz had put together a fancy, official-looking letter to commissioners detailing the heaping steamy pile of abuse we were amounting in the purchasing department. Commissioners thanked Utz for his sincere concern and effort by promptly firing him, which Utz claims was done to send a message to any other whistle-blowers thinking about getting frisky with the facts.

Of course, Utz was only one of the dozens of people who actively attempted to shine a little light on how County Administrator Jim Ley and his staff had been dispersing $300 million worth of our tax money every year. But with every outcry, dissenters were casually brushed off and “flippantly dismissed” as jealous, whiney, disgruntled little bitches that were just mad they couldn’t handle the competition.

That is, until last month when our very own purchasing scandal poster boy, former county project manager Rodney Jones, was charged with accepting a few hotel stays and NASCAR tickets from a company that had logged $5.1 million worth of labor for Sarasota County, without ever competing for a contract.

As you might guess, this little discovery put County officials in Defcon 5 damage control, leading commissioners to order a $90,000 study of the county’s purchasing practices by the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing. Let’s take a look at what we’ve dug up over the course of our little audit, shall we?

Following a voided $2.5 million software contract in early 2008 due to the county violating its own spending rules, came the first of three audits pointing out that county workers had been swiping their government issued plastic like Paris Hilton at a Prada clearance sale, as a way of using the credit to avoid competitive bidding on contracts.

After we busted a bunch of employees paying a company well beyond the $50 grand that is supposed to trigger a bidding process in January 2008, Ley and the boys cracked the whip and said they had it handled. A few months later, another review found that the folks paying our credit cards bills had no way to tell if purchases were legit. The county patched that leak by requiring managers to sign off on all invoices. You’d think that was a given… But hey, fixed now right?

Not so much… Once again in May 2009, the county discovered card purchases made with yet more companies that should have been put out to bid. But this time the county fixed things for good… (Psych!)

Yeah right, you think we’d actually get something fixed after only five attempted remedies? We’re talkin’ Sarasota here, people.

The real doosey wasn’t even unveiled until our audit dropped last week, showing five county employees that have charged more than $1.7 million going to seven companies over the past two years. Two of those employees got canned, as well as two of their supervisors. But something tells me that ain’t gonna cut it.

If you ask the TWISler, before we look at spending any more money on contractors or handing out any more Visa cards, we might want to consider purchasing a new County Administrator.

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