Miami-Dade County

Top Miami-Dade watchdog says he was ousted after trying to expose financial screw ups

A file photo of the Miami-Dade County Commission, which has approves all major spending decisions, meeting in June 2015.
A file photo of the Miami-Dade County Commission, which has approves all major spending decisions, meeting in June 2015. El Nuevo Herald

A former top watchdog in Miami-Dade government claims he was ousted over his efforts to expose widespread financial mismanagement in the county.

James Rosenberg used to run audits for the Inspector General office, but says he was fired over his aggressive questioning of how the county was spending its transit tax and other funds. “It’s a case of killing the messenger,” Rosenberg’s lawyer, Bill Amlong, said Friday.

This week, the county’s ethics board rejected Rosenberg’s allegations, endorsing an investigative report that found no effort to water down an audit described as “explosive” in his complaint against Inspector General Mary Cagle. Instead, the report said Cagle allowed Rosenberg to continue his watchdog duties even as she was encouraging him to find work elsewhere.

Cagle warned Rosenberg last year that she would fire him in part over his inability “to deal professionally with high-level County officials,” but allowed him to continue working on the transit-tax audit as he wound down his duties, according to the report.

“Rosenberg wasn’t being punished for his alleged Whistleblowing at all,” according to the ethics report, “in fact he was permitted to be an active participant in disclosing the deficiencies that the Audit had found well after Cagle had expressed her concerns to Rosenberg about his ability to operate as a member of her executive team.”

The allegations in the dismissed complaint were baseless, and insulting to Miami-Dade County’s professional public administrators.”

Miami-Dade spokesman Michael Hernández

Amlong said Rosenberg’s ethics complaint against Cagle was a needed legal step as his client prepares a lawsuit against the county. Rosenberg wants to return to his former post as assistant inspector general, rather than his current information-tech job he was given as part of a demotion.

His complaint centers around an accounting dispute that was the subject of the June 2016 audit that Rosenberg supervised. The report concluded that over the course of seven years, Miami-Dade improperly charged the transportation tax and other restricted revenue sources for $15 million in overhead expenses, including vacation time. The audit found the expenses should have been charged to the general fund, a more than $1 billion pool of money made up mostly of property taxes.

Though technical, the allegation strikes a politically sensitive topic, since Mayor Carlos Gimenez won reelection last year on a campaign that centered around his keeping property-tax rates mostly flat during his five years in office. There has also been increasing pressure in recent years to stop spending the transportation tax on operating expenses in order to free it up to build new transit projects.

County administrators acknowledged some billing errors in the audit, but said they also discovered a string of overhead expenses that should have been charged to the transportation tax but weren’t. The result, they told auditors, would have been Miami-Dade spending more of the tax on administrative expenses, even without the double billing on vacation time.

It’s a case of killing the messenger.”

James Rosenberg’s lawyer, Bill Amlong

But Rosenberg said the final audit obscured what he said was a larger pattern of Miami-Dade either manipulating expenses to reduce pressure on property taxes, or ignoring evidence of financial mismanagement across the bureaucracy.

“It was common knowledge that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had for years been pressuring many departments to reduce their reliance on General Funds,” Rosenberg wrote in his ethics complaint against Cagle. After he said budget chief Jennifer Moon told him “no County department understands its costs,” Rosenberg said he wanted the audit to mention the possibility that accounting of expenses may be flawed in multiple departments. He claimed Cagle dropped that language from the final report.

Cagle referred questions to a spokeswoman, who was not available for an interview Friday. Michael Hernández, Gimenez’s spokesman, called Rosenberg’s accusations insulting.

“The allegations in the dismissed complaint were baseless,” Hernández wrote, “and insulting to Miami-Dade County’s professional public administrators.”