Seven months after Broward School District auditors accused a contractor of overcharging taxpayers $765,000 for hurricane cleanup work, administrators have hired an outside accounting firm to scrutinize those findings.
The district can't say how much taxpayers will spend for a review of the controversial report, which says Pompano Beach-based AshBritt, Inc. billed for repair work it did not perform after Hurricane Wilma. It also said "there were clear signs of coercion and falsified documentation" to get AshBritt paid.
AshBritt disputes the 48-page audit, which was released in July, and threatened to sue, claiming it tarnished the company's "good name and reputation in the disaster recovery and emergency management services industry."
The district on Dec. 14 hired Berkowitz, Dick, Pollack & Brant Certified Public Accountants & Consultants "to do the kind of drill down that is necessary to ultimately decide if you go court or not," Broward Schools Superintendent James Notter said.
Notter said at one point he considered tapping the district's construction attorney to review the report but eventually concluded an outside auditor was needed.
The accounting firm is billing by the hour at rates ranging from $90 to $400, but no invoices have been submitted, according to Ed Marko, the School Board attorney who hired the group.
The company could not be reached for comment despite three attempts by phone. It was hired as the district faces a budget crisis. District administrators recently told the School Board that up to 475 jobs are on the line in the facilities and maintenance divisions unless $47 million is slashed from the capital budget.
Still, Notter said redoing the audit was necessary, "given the high-profile nature of the audit."
"It became obvious to us that there was a need to go out and have an additional set of eyes," said Notter, who added he has yet to read the complete audit. "It is certainly not any lack of respect for our audit department."
If the district and AshBritt end up in court, the accounting firm will act as an expert witness, he said.
The audit generated controversy within the district. Facility and construction management administrators who oversaw the AshBritt contract called it slanderous. School Board members accused auditors of editorializing and writing "gotcha audits."
Members of the district's Audit Committee, a watchdog group of citizens appointed by School Board members, rallied behind auditors and criticized the board for its lack of support.
Chief Auditor Pat Reilly stands by the report, which calls for investigations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as state authorities.
More than 8,000 pages of supporting documents have been shared with federal investigators, who are looking into the district's contract with AshBritt as part of its government corruption probe.
The audit says AshBritt was processing invoices for C&B Services of Texas, which lacked required licenses to work in Florida, inflated its hotel and food costs, double-billed the district and performed unnecessary repairs. After the district refused to pay C&B, AshBritt said it was the lead contractor on the job and submitted bills on C&B's behalf, according to the audit.
Marko said he didn't share the voluminous backup documents with the outside accounting firm, just "significant documents." The company has not requested the documents auditors used to write the report.
"I just gave them the report and said there seems to be a difference of opinion" between the auditors and facilities department, Marko said.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4527.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun