Auditor Quits. Cites City "Appearance" Concerns

Britz-Parker: I maintained “highest standards for independence.”

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2/11/13 Story Update:
City Auditor Bernadette Britz-Parker has withdrawn from her position with the city and will be replaced by another member of her firm, James Halleran. In a letter sent to the city (see button below) and obtained by the Voice today, Ms. Britz-Parker states that she has maintained the “Independence in Fact” and “Independence in Appearance” required of CPAs.
Britz-Parker also writes that she “never violated any standard, statute, interpretation, pronouncement or regulation relating to the profession.” The Voice spoke with a member of Britz-Parker’s CPA firm seeking comment from her or any representative of her firm regarding her withdrawal from the city account, but has not received any comment prior to publishing this update. We have also requested comment from city staff, the Mayor and all commissioners regarding these developments — and any future actions the city may take — but have not received comment as of press time.

Britz-Parker states categorically that her comments concerning Commissioner Cooper were not an endorsement of her campaign: “This comment was in fact an observation about preparedness for meetings and not an endorsement of Commissioner Cooper, who as I recall, was an unopposed candidate for re-election to the Winter Park City Commission.”
In the closing of her letter, Britz-Parker acknowledged the concerns of city officials regarding the appearance her comments created: “While I am confident that my independence has not been impaired in any way, after discussing the matter with the Managing Partner of our firm and the Partner in Charge of Accounting and Auditing, we have concluded that to assuage any concerns you might have, effective the date of this letter, the partner in charge of the City of Winter Park engagement will be James Halleran.” Letter From City Auditor

Cooper Faults Bradley for Ethical Inconsistency: “Wrong / Shameful”

In Monday’s Commission meeting, the gloves came off soon after opening niceties were dispensed with. Mayor Bradley started the exchange by responding to the City Auditor’s resignation: “I personally welcome that and will welcome the new partner.” Commissioner Cooper jumped in and asked for consideration of new rules and a consistent standard of conduct. As a case in point, she spoke about campaign contributions given to commissioners by the prior City Auditor.

Cooper cited her own investigation that turned up evidence that “that our prior auditor actually made contributions to candidates — financial contributions — while they were auditors.” Cooper compared the commission’s concern about an endorsement with their silence regarding campaign contributions by prior auditors: “If we were uncomfortable with the James Moore firm saying that I prepared for meetings, then I’m sure we would be equally uncomfortable with an auditor that gave the maximum possible financial contributions to people on this commission . . .”

Mayor Bradley disagreed, referring to the Auditor’s letter of resignation: “There’s a huge difference . . . she said, I mean, in her letter as you’ve read, apparently the same thing: ‘We probably should have re-thought that’ and because of that to assure the assurance that there’s no questions that she’s asked to be relieved of that responsibility. So I support that decision. I think that she did the right thing.”
The entire Feb. 11 commission discussion of the City Auditor resignation is featured in WPV Video shown below.

Read & Input Comments

2/9/13 Story: Election 2013 was re-ignited last week in Winter Park’s City Commission meeting when Mayor Ken Bradley called for the City Auditor to appear before the commission and explain her campaign endorsement of Commissioner Carolyn Cooper. “I think it’s a serious enough breach . . . that I think she should come and explain herself to this group.”

The Mayor’s challenge of the Auditor was set in motion two weeks earlier – in the prior January 14 Commission meeting – a few days after Commission candidate Ross Johnston filed an election-related lawsuit against the city. In that meeting, the Mayor asked the City Attorney to participate in a review of “the financial independence” of the City Auditor.

The endorsement in question is a two-sentence statement by Bernadette Britz-Parker, the City Auditor, in support of Carolyn Cooper’s study habits: “In 32 years of auditing governments, I have rarely encountered an elected official who has been as prepared as Commissioner Cooper. It’s refreshing to sit down for a meeting, and realize the financial information has already been studied so we’re not starting from scratch.” Commissioner Cooper included the statement in a campaign mailer and on the Endorsement page of her campaign website.

Ms. Britz-Parker is a partner in the CPA firm, James Moore & Co., P.L., that audits the city’s finances. The firm was hired in 2010 after being recommended by an Auditor Selection Board that included three accounting professionals, the Chief Deputy Comptroller for Orange County and Commissioner Cooper. Britz-Parker’s firm was ultimately approved and voted on by the entire City Commission.

Mayor Bradley set the tenor of the discussion early in the meeting by challenging the Auditor’s actions: “I find it questionable – highly questionable. Enough that it’s created questions in this community . . .” Bradley’s sentiments were echoed by Commissioner Sprinkel, who supported the Mayor’s call to have the Auditor explain her endorsement. (See video of full discussion below.)

City Attorney Finds No Violation, But Questions “Appearance” of Auditor Endorsement

During the meeting, City Attorney Larry Brown summarized his research on the matter by stating that opinions he’s researched show that “Generally accepted auditing standards and the United States Comptroller’s Government Audit Standards . . . do require that the auditor maintain independence. Independence is generally defined in the opinions as relating to financial independence, so when you look at the opinions, they don’t get into political endorsements. The opinions deal with an auditor who owns stock in a subsidiary company that he or she is auditing, or . . . an auditor is on a subsidiary board of a government that they’re auditing. Those are the kinds of independence opinions that I found. I did not find an opinion that expressly said giving an endorsement of that type, per se, violates the standard of independence.”

Brown did venture an opinion that generally accepted “best practice” among professional firms who do government business (including his firm) is to avoid endorsing candidates. Brown indicated that many, but not all, firms avoid endorsing or contributing to candidates because “the appearance is arguably one that interferes with your independence.”

Several accounting professionals contacted by the Voice agreed that campaign endorsements in a case like this are problematic – and are best avoided in the interest of maintaining the appearance of independence. However, the sources we spoke with could not point to any direct conflict of interest where the actual work of the Auditor – auditing city finances – could benefit any individual city commissioner.

Mayor Contemplating Termination of Auditor?

In an email obtained by the Voice, (see button below) the City Attorney states that “In my opinion, an official could reasonably find that this endorsement, (assuming it is a materially accurate quote), made with the intent that it would be used publicly in the campaign, created at least an appearance that the auditor failed to take action to assure the City and the public regarding her “independence”. As stated in my previous letter, Generally Accepted Auditing Standards stress that the auditor has an affirmative duty to assure her independence.” Brown also notes in the conclusion of his email that “It isn’t my role to decide whether this endorsement warrants termination of the contract.” There is no mention in the email of who may have asked the City Attorney about a “termination” option.

The Voice contacted City Manager Randy Knight, City Finance Director Wes Hamil and all City Commissioners and submitted questions regarding potential conflicts of interest created by the Financial Auditor’s endorsement – including the question of how an endorsement of this sort could actually impact the duties of the city’s Financial Auditor, or the city’s financial standing. Other than Commissioner Cooper’s statement to the Voice, none of the commissioners or city officials responded to our questions and request for comment. Commissioner Sprinkel declined comment, citing “Sunshine Law” concerns.

Commissioner Cooper’s statement to the Voice included her contention that the Auditor’s endorsement broke no rules and that she believes “. . . it is understandable that I would ask those professionals that work with me, as a commissioner, to comment on my work habits and dedication to the job I was elected to do . . . I believe our auditor is a professional and independence in matters of the city’s financial audit was not compromised. Had I thought otherwise, I would never have asked for a statement. Only professionals who have interfaced with me as a commissioner can fairly assess my dedication and competence.” The full text of Cooper’s statement can be viewed by clicking the button below.

Are City Officials Having “Off-The-Record” Conversations About Auditor?

According to City Attorney Brown, his formal January 25 opinion letter concerning the endorsement (see button below) was triggered by the Mayor’s request at the end of the January 14 Commission meeting. However, a careful review of meeting minutes and our video of that meeting does not appear to reveal the kind of specifics that Attorney Brown would have needed to craft his opinion letter.

In his letter, Brown mentions several times that he has not received any “written” information pertaining to case specifics. This distinction creates a question of whether there were verbal “off the record” communications regarding this case between the City Attorney and city officials. Following up this question, the Voice requested that city officials provide an “account” of the initial inquiry that supplied the specifics of the case to the City Attorney. As of press time, the Voice has received no reply regarding this matter from the city.

City Attorney – Auditor Opinion   City Email re Auditor   Cooper Statement

During last week’s Commission meeting, Commissioner Cooper defended the actions of the Auditor and took the blame for exposing her to criticism. “I feel very responsible for her kind of being called on the carpet . . . I did say to her ‘Oh, would you mind giving me an endorsement?’ and so that really is my fault . . . I don’t think it has any reflection negatively on her professionalism . . . all she said is that I was prepared . . . I’m willing to accept total responsibility for it.”

Cooper Takes Aim at Leary’s Support for Her Election Opponent. Mayor Objects.

Cooper followed her explanation of the Auditor’s endorsement with a thinly-veiled swipe at Commissioner Leary’s support of Ross Johnston’s campaign for her commission seat, adding “I am willing to say as a commissioner that I will – if we could do it as a group – that I will not sign petitions on behalf of a candidate, I will not volunteer my employees to be campaign treasurers for a candidate – nor will I ask anyone who works with me in my capacity as a commissioner to give me a reference.”

Mayor Bradley countered Cooper, taking exception to her equating campaign support with campaign endorsements (neither Cooper nor Bradley mentioned Leary by name) : “I think the Auditor’s incredibly different from that . . . I think that when we go to Wall St. or anyplace else, the financial independence of the auditor’s recommendation and opinion is critical.”

The Mayor called again for the Auditor to appear and explain whether her endorsement changes her financial independence. Commissioner Cooper criticized the Mayor’s approach, “It’s just public humiliation – and unnecessarily so . . .” Bradley quickly countered “I think it’s a question that needs to be answered in terms of financial independence . . .” The Mayor then hinted at a possible outcome of the investigation: “I think it’d be a lot easier than moving tonight that we terminate the Auditor immediately . . .”

Cooper Calls for Campaign Reform: Let’s Stop Taking Contributions From Large Developers

The strained relationship between Mayor Bradley and Commissioner Cooper surfaced repeatedly during their point-counterpoint exchange – with Cooper continuing her call for across-the-board reforms of commission campaign practices. “I personally would like for us to not accept contributions from people who bring large developments in front of the city.”

Commissioner Leary spoke next – his only input into the discussion. He supported the Mayor’s request for an explanation from the Auditor. “I’d certainly like to hear her explanation for what she did . . . this is a rabbit hole we’re getting into here. I’d like to just address this one thing on the point and move on . . .”

As the discussion wound down, Mayor Bradley offered to allow the Auditor to speak with the commissioners individually and/or submit a written explanation. Commissioner McMacken agreed that individual meetings with the Auditor would be appropriate.

In response to a request for comment from the Voice, Ms. Britz-Parker indicated that she will be submitting a written statement to the city regarding her actions. Winter Park Voice will publish the Auditor’s response as soon as it is made available by the city.

City Attorney Also Targeted in Election Controversy. Job Was Threatened Last December.

Complaints about high-level city professionals have not been confined to endorsements – City Attorney Brown has also been subject to recent election-related criticism and commission actions that put his employment at stake. In the same week that Mayor Bradley first questioned the City Auditor’s endorsement of Carolyn Cooper, Cooper’s opponent, Ross Johnston, accused the City Attorney of “possible” favoritism toward Commissioner Cooper. Johnston never produced any proof of bias and ultimately dropped his lawsuit to compel the city to place him on the ballot opposing Cooper.

Thirty days before Johnston leveled charges at the City Attorney, Mayor Bradley and Commissioner Leary mounted an unsuccessful bid to potentially replace Larry Brown as City Attorney. The motion to seek bids from other law firms to serve as City Attorney failed on a 3 to 2 vote at the December 10 City Commission meeting.

Though complaints about Brown from Bradley and Leary did not include charges of bias, the Mayor and Commissioner did state dissatisfaction with the attorney’s fees and job performance. Mayor Bradley also commented that he’d like the City Attorney to be “much more a part of this team.”

A common thread linking City Commission actions to possibly replace the City Attorney – and to investigate the City Auditor – are statements by Commissioner Leary & Mayor Bradley implying that these two officials could lose their jobs. In his remarks during the 12/10 commission meeting, Commissioner Leary referred to the City Attorney’s job while openly speculating about “someone else representing us”. Mayor Bradley is on-record mentioning an option on 1/28 to “terminate the Auditor immediately.”

WPV video below shows the entire Dec. 10 commission discussion of a search for possible replacement of the City Attorney. The entire Jan. 28 commission discussion of the City Auditor investigation is featured in WPV Video shown above.

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    By: Tom Childers

    Tom was the previous editor of the Winter Park Voice and a citizen of Winter Park. He was a tireless advocate for Winter Park.

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