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‘Alarmed’ by missing cash from Hollywood evidence room, city official calls for a full review

Saying he was “alarmed” to learn that as much as $175,000 in cash could be missing from the police department’s evidence vault, Hollywood Assistant City Manager Frank Fernandez asked Friday for a full review and meeting with anyone who was aware of problems there.

Fernandez, who was hired in August, said although he had been briefed by outgoing Police Chief Chad Wagner, he was not aware of the extent of the problems in the evidence locker until he read The Miami Herald’s story about the missing money Friday.

“I think anybody would be alarmed with any amount missing — let alone that much,” said Fernandez, who oversees public safety for the city. “But there has been no confirmation,” he added.

The Broward state attorney’s office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have launched a criminal investigation into cash — estimates range from $125,000 to $175,000 — that went missing, although it’s not clear when. The FDLE investigation is focusing on a retired police sergeant who supervised the vault from 2006 until his retirement in April 2011.

The sergeant, John Nevins, told The Miami Herald on Friday that he never misplaced, stole or knew about a substantial amount of money missing during his tenure.

However, Nevins did say that about a year before he retired, he reported about $90 missing from a safe to his then-supervisor. He said he went to retrieve the money from the safe after it was requested in connection to a closed criminal case.

He was startled to find the cash had disappeared and asked his supervisors to conduct an audit. Sources said he and others scoured the vault but could find no evidence of the cash. To his knowledge, there was nothing else found missing before or since.

“I’m not hiding anything,’’ Nevins said.

The vault or locker, as it is sometimes called, is actually a group of several secured rooms in the station in which valuables and other evidence seized during a criminal investigation is stored. The evidence can include guns, money and forensic information.

In addition to Nevins, a civilian employee is also under scrutiny by the FDLE because he was seen helping Nevins remove boxes from the evidence area on Dec. 16, 2011.

Surveillance cameras captured Nevins removing the boxes, sources said.

Nevins said he did take some empty boxes — but they were from the supply room — not the evidence vault. The supply room is a storage area for office supplies and is separate from the evidence or property locker, which is secured.

“I have never taken anything out of the property vault,’’ he said. “I only took some empty boxes from the storage area.’’

The boxes, he said, were used to pack gifts for the needy.

Four city commissioners contacted by The Miami Herald said they were not informed about the investigation until Thursday night. City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark, Wagner and Fernandez had kept a lid on the probe so as to not jeopardize the case, they said.

“The investigation from what I understand has been going on for quite some time,” said Commissioner Linda Sherwood. “I know they are doing a very thorough investigation. I have confidence they will find the truth.”

Mayor Peter Bober, however, said he was aware of the probe before Thursday.

“It’s a very serious allegation,” said Bober. “I absolutely support the decision to hand it over to an outside agency and assume that FDLE will do a thorough investigation and release their findings.”

Sources close to the investigation said FDLE was only recently brought into the case, although problems with the evidence room were noted by then-Chief Wagner months ago. State investigators have already been to Hollywood to collect evidence, according to sources.

Nevins said the evidence locker was “a complete mess” when he took it over more than five years ago, and several other sources confirmed that there have been problems with the integrity of the operation for many years, largely because the city’s personnel cutbacks have led to less oversight.

Jeff Marano, head of Broward’s police union, said he doesn’t believe Nevins committed any wrongdoing. The department’s evidence room, he said, is like a game of “musical chairs,” with frequent turnover in recent years. “The music stopped and [Nevins] was standing there.”

As the city issued layoffs over the past couple lean of years, civilian employees who had more seniority bumped those with less seniority, resulting in people being placed in jobs where they were not qualified, Marano said.

Even so, employees, civilians and even police officers are not permitted in the evidence area without permission and they must be buzzed in and sign a log, according to police department procedure. All evidence is scanned and inventoried and then inputted into a computer.

Today, cash is deposited into pouches, labeled and placed into locked safes. That wasn’t the case five years ago, sources said, when cash was just piled on shelves in plastic pouches in plain view.

Fernandez said he was aware there had been some recent changes made, such as locker codes changed in September, but he was now looking into why the changes were made.

He also expressed concern that problems with the evidence rooms dated back years and the department was aware of the issues, but he had not been properly briefed.

In a letter to Interim Police Chief Vince Affanato on Friday, Fernandez wrote: “I would like for you to put together a meeting with those individuals in the department and the city who can provide me with a complete review of the historical issues related to the property unit.”

He added that he wanted to see any memos not part of the FDLE investigation that relate to the evidence locker issues and requested an update on the financial audit the police department is currently undergoing.

“I want to have complete situational awareness and clarity so that we can take the appropriate corrective measures,’’ he wrote.

Neither Affanato nor Wagner returned repeated phone calls in connection with this story.