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Inquiry of port spending ordered

Accusing Port Everglades of spending money "like a drunken sailor," lawmakers on Tuesday ordered a full-blown state inquiry into the way the agency does business.

The inquiry -- focusing on everything from $800 opera tickets to how many car phones port executives need -- will begin almost immediately and could spur widespread changes in how the port is run.

"They've gone off spending like a drunken sailor, and we should get someone in there to check on them," said Rep. Carol Hanson, R-Boca Raton. "Somebody has to come in that's completely free of scandal, and that's the auditor general."

The committee had ordered an audit during its Nov. 13 meeting. Tuesday's session was called to set the audit's scope, and legislators opted for the maximum review.

The audits will be the most intense outside scrutiny ever for Port Everglades, which has gone largely unregulated through its 61-year history. The reviews were prompted by disclosures that the port used its profits to buy gold rings, Dolphins passes and tickets to political fund-raisers.

Public outrage over the spending and the port's new property tax prompted lawmakers to take interest in the issue and ultimately led to Tuesday's hearing before the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.

By January, auditors will begin reviewing the port's purchases, contracts and bond deals over the past year. Legislators want to read that audit by March in case they choose to make changes in the port's bylaws during April's legislative session.

In June, auditors will undertake Part II of the examination: an exhaustive review of port management and staffing.

The port must be "held to a degree of accountability," said Sen. Bob Johnson, R-Sarasota. "I think it's very important we find out what they're doing."

Port Everglades Director Joel Alesi said the audits will "clear the air" and dispel the perception that the agency wastes public money.

"I welcome the auditor general's look into Port Everglades, particularly those issues that have been explored by the media . . . with less courtesy than we would have liked," Alesi told the lawmakers. "We feel the proof is in the pudding."

Alesi defended all of the port's purchases during his 16- month tenure, including the rings and sports passes.

The office of Auditor General Charles L. Lester determines whether government agencies such as the Port Everglades Authority comply with state law. It has power to turn its findings over to the Legislature or, if appropriate, the state attorney's office for criminal investigation.

This is the first state audit for Port Everglades, a $27 million-a-year operation. Until now, the port has not even had an internal auditor watch the books; the agency is trying to fill such a position.

The port's books are regularly examined by a private auditing firm. This year, the port paid consultant Booz-Allen & Hamilton more than $200,000 to critique port management. Booz- Allen praised the port's growth, but said the agency could save $3 million by cutting 52 unneeded jobs.

The state audit can go even further in spurring change at the port, which has grown from a backwater to the world's second-busiest cruise ship port. Some taxpayers have called for abolishment of the port commission, with power going instead to the Broward County Commission.

Key decision-makers, such as Broward delegation leader Debby Sanderson, say they're waiting until the audit is complete before recommending changes.

Though the initial inquiry begins soon, legislators put off the management audit for six months to allow Alesi more time to respond to the September Booz-Allen review. So far, Alesi has trimmed $2 million from the port's budget through job cuts and a reduction in port car phones, credit cards, take-home autos and travel.

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