By DOTTY NIST
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) has indicated that they will not launch a criminal investigation at this time in connection with the Walton County Clerk of Courts 40-page April 5 report examining potential asset misappropriation by the current Walton County commissioners, a document that has also been referred to in recent months as “the audit report.”
FDLE Director Scott McInerney signaled the agency’s decision in an Aug. 23 letter to Ginger Bowden Madden, state attorney for the First Judicial Circuit. “Based on the information reviewed, there is insufficient evidence at this time to support a predicate for FDLE to initiate a criminal investigation,” McInerney wrote, in part.
McInerney also stated that the Walton County Clerk of Courts Office had been notified of FDLE’s decision “not to initiate an investigation,” and had been advised, “to notify FDLE should their further inquiry of the matter, or anticipated audit, reveal additional facts to substantiate criminal activity.”
According to the April 5 clerk’s office report, authored by the clerk’s Internal Audit Department, the initial investigation had been prompted by a Jan. 31 anonymous statement to the clerk’s Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Hotline alleging that two county commissioners (Boots McCormick and Danny Glidewell) had abused their privileges in connection with county vehicle use, mileage reimbursement for vehicle use, and county credit card (p-card) use.
Internal Audit’s investigation had broadened to include all the current county commissioners and had examined the commissioners’ p-card transactions between Oct. 1, 2019 and Jan. 31, 2022, along with records for county vehicle use and travel vouchers for the time period. While the original anonymous allegations had not been substantiated, the inquiry had yielded findings that some p-card transactions had violated the county travel policy due to missing travel vouchers and that some transactions had been, “unallowable per the County Purchasing Card Policy, plus in certain instances, Florida Statute.” There were findings of violation on the part of all five county commissioners.
The clerk’s office report had been provided to Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson, who had furnished a copy to Madden’s office, with the document then being referred to FDLE in mid-July for examination.
News on FDLE’s decision against a criminal investigation and the Aug. 23 FDLE letter were relayed to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at their Sept. 13 regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse. Walton County Clerk of Courts Alex Alford was in attendance at the meeting. He addressed the BCC and provided the commissioners with a six-page letter on the matter of his office’s April 5 report.
Tony Cornman, Walton County interim administrator, brought up the topic at the BCC meeting. He read a statement on the matter provided by District 5 Commissioner Danny Glidewell who was out of town and not in attendance. District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson was absent, as well, due to illness.
Glidewell wrote: “I regret I am unable to be with you today, however, I do want to express my desire that this unseemly episode is concluded. My sincere desire is that the Clerk of Courts and Comptroller will take this opportunity to right the wrongs this incident has caused and move expeditiously to restore the trust of the Board and our citizens in the office of the Clerk and Comptroller.”
Alford presented the BCC with his letter in written form and also made remarks. His letter included a timeline related to the investigation and report, stating,
“… I would like to provide you with a timeline regarding the Report in the hopes that it may explain the difficult position my office was in over the last few weeks. I have been unable to respond while some of you and the Interim County Attorney have lobbed criticism at me and my staff during recent BCC meetings. I know you have been frustrated by how this process has unfolded and I too share in that frustration, albeit perhaps for different reasons.
“On January 31, 2022, my office received an anonymous report via the fraud, waste, and abuse hotline which alleged certain improprieties regarding the use of County vehicles and purchasing cards by Commissioners Glidewell and McCormick. That same day, the Director of Internal Audit provided me with an engagement letter for the conduct of a fraud examination. Beginning in March, while the fraud examination was still being conducted, my office began to receive public records requests for any reports or documents related to the fraud examination.
“On April 5, 2022, the fraud examination was completed, and the Director of Internal Audit provided me with her Report. I spent the next few weeks reviewing the Report. In May 2022, I provided the Report to the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (“WCSO”) due to the nature of the anonymous report to the fraud hotline. It was later communicated to me that the WCSO had turned over the Report to the Office of the State Attorney for the First Judicial Circuit (“State Attorney’s Office”) for its review.
“On June 30, 2022, shortly after a meeting with the Interim County Attorney and the County CFO, I received a phone call from WCSO that the WCSO and State Attorney had completed their reviews of the Report and that the outstanding public records requests could be fulfilled. As soon as I received that news, I delivered a copy of the Report to the Interim County Attorney’s law office and then subsequently fulfilled the outstanding public records requests.
“On July 5, 2022, the Interim County Attorney contacted the Clerk’s Office General Counsel indicating that he would like to arrange meetings between me, members of my staff, members of your staff, and each of you individually. On July 6 and July 7, 2022, Ms. Noyes and Mr. Adkinson corresponded regarding the scheduling of those meetings.
“Shortly after finalizing the meeting dates and times, the Director of Internal Audit received a phone call from the State Attorney’s Office. During the call, it was explained that there had been a miscommunication regarding the State Attorney’s Office’s review being complete and that the State Attorney’s Office was still reviewing the Report. The State Attorney’s Office requested that the Clerk’s Office not meet with the Commissioners or comment on the Report given that its review was not yet complete. Immediately after that call with the State Attorney’s Office, Ms. Noyes emailed Mr. Adkinson to cancel the meetings that had been scheduled.
“On July 12, 2022, you held a special meeting to discuss the Report. At that meeting, some of you and the Interim County Attorney made accusations toward me and my staff to which I was unable to respond given the pending review by law enforcement.
“On July 15, 2022, my office learned through a press release that the State Attorney’s Office had forwarded the Report to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for its review.
“On August 10, 2022, the Interim County Attorney sent me three letters with attachments for Commissioners Anderson, Barker, and Glidewell. Given that FDLE was still reviewing the Report, I was unable to respond to Mr. Adkinson’s letters at that time.
“On August 19, 2022, my office learned that there was an agenda item on the August 23, 2022 BCC Meeting and that Mr. Adkinson’s August 10, 2022 letters were attached to the agenda item.
“As a result, I asked Ms. Noyes to respond to Mr. Adkinson’s letters to explain why I could not comment on the Report at that time and to clarify the mistaken assumption that the Report was an audit rather than a fraud examination. Ms. Noyes sent that letter on August 22, 2022.
“Rather than explaining that I could not meet with you or comment on the Report due to the FDLE investigation, as stated in Ms. Noyes’ letter, Mr. Adkinson said at the August 23, 2022 BCC Meeting ‘unfortunately Mr. Alford doesn’t want to meet with us at this time, I guess he’ll meet with us in the future.’
“On September 6, 2022, my office received an email from FDLE with a copy of a letter dated August 23, 2022, indicating that FDLE had completed its review of the Report and that there was ‘insufficient evidence at this time to support a predicate for FDLE to initiate a criminal investigation.’ As soon as my office received the email on September 6, 2022, efforts were made to contact you, first through the Interim County Attorney, then through the Interim County Administrator, to see if you would like to meet individually to discuss the Report now that FDLE had completed its review. It was communicated by the Interim County Administrator that you did not want to meet individually and would instead place an item on today’s agenda regarding the Report.
“How these events unfolded over the last few weeks is unfortunate. I realize my inability to communicate regarding this matter contributed to your frustration regarding this Report. While I certainly understand your frustration, I do not believe the comments made by some of you and the Interim County Attorney at your July 12 and August 23, 2022 Meetings were warranted. The Clerk’s Office and BCC have long had a productive working relationship for the benefit of the citizens of Walton County and my hope is that we can return to that productive working relationship soon.”
After discussing the timeline briefly at the meeting, Alford asked the BCC for any questions. Walton County Commission Chairman Mike Barker said he did not have any but said that as far as Alford meeting with the commissioners individually, it would be up to each commissioner to decide whether they would like to meet with Alford or not. He also observed that there had been some confusion as to whether the report was an audit and argued that it had been called an audit in the report “numerous times.”
Alford disagreed with the latter, stating that, “it does not say audit stand-alone anywhere in the report,” although observing that phrases such as “internal audit department” and “director of internal audit” had been used.
He also disagreed with remarks by Barker indicating that there were “incorrect things” in the report and that required documentation that the report had stated had not been provided by the commissioners had in fact been present in the clerk’s record system.
“It does not have anything incorrect in it,” Alford said of the report. He said of the director of internal audit who authored the report, “She reported the discrepancies between our financial software and the documentation she had access to. She couldn’t do the full audit…and go to each one of the commissioners and ask you for documentation.” Alford said the director was not able to do the latter because this was a fraud investigation rather than an audit.
He also maintained that the documents that the report had indicated were missing had not been in the clerk’s accounting system. “Now if they are between your employee and another employee, that does not constitute them being in my system,” Alford said.
After some additional discussion on the missing documents issue, Alford agreed to provide the BCC with a full accounting of the process used to determine whether the documentation required to be provided by the commissioners per county policy had been missing.
District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick said his biggest question had been why the commissioners had not been allowed to give their side of the story and answer questions related to the inquiry before the report was made available to the public and sent to a law enforcement agency.
“The problem was it got put before the public,” Alford agreed, while reminding the commissioners that his intent after the report was completed had been to meet with the commissioners individually and attend the next BCC meeting to explain “what took place.”
He said that when his office turned the report over to law enforcement, “we told them up front that we thought there was no grounds for fraud, period.”
“Honestly, your frustrations are justified,” Alford told the commissioners, “and mine are just as bad. It was an unfair whole process to both of us, I can tell you that up front. There’s no way that information should have been made public.”
District 4 Commissioner Trey Nick observed that the report had “hit social media” before the commissioners even knew about it.
Alford said he had no idea why that had occurred. He said his office had fulfilled two public records requests for the report and that a copy of the report had been given to the county attorney first.
Alford emphasized that any disparaging remarks on the report should be directed to him and not his staff. “They are not fair game,” he said.
McCormick asked how the BCC could work together with the clerk’s office to avoid the same situation occurring again. “This is not healthy for the citizens. It’s not healthy for the county as a whole,” he said.
Alford said he agreed “100 percent” on the goal of the BCC and the clerk’s office pursuing a good working relationship. He noted that this was the first time a real investigation had taken place in response to an accusation through the clerk’s office Fraud and Abuse Hotline, although it would likely not be the last. He explained that while such investigations are ongoing there are certain restrictions on contact associated with the process.
“I do thank you for coming today,” McCormick told Alford.
Barker concluded, “And I’ll say that I have worked with the clerk’s office, as well as trying to involve the clerk’s office in things it hasn’t been involved with before, like insurance matters and things like that. I have done my best to involve the clerk’s office.”
There was no indication whether or not any commissioner would take Alford up on his offer for an individual meeting to discuss the report.