Miami Beach

After $3.6 million theft, Miami Beach’s finance department gets scrutiny

City manager Jimmy Morales said there is no indication that city staffers stole the money.
City manager Jimmy Morales said there is no indication that city staffers stole the money. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Something clearly went wrong when $3.6 million was stolen from one of Miami Beach’s bank accounts over a period of six months last year, and the city’s finance staff did not notice it until December.

On Wednesday, commissioners will be presented with recommendations from a financial consultant brought in to identify what went awry. International financial services company BDO was contracted to scrutinize the city’s finance department.

The report has not been made public. Commissioners received brief reviews of the findings this week, but have not seen the full report, which will become public at Wednesday’s meeting.

Commissioners who spoke with the Miami Herald said no specific recommendations were reviewed, but a list of dozens of suggestions is expected to be presented Wednesday. Commissioner Ricky Arriola said finance staff assured him a majority of the recommendations have already been implemented.

What won’t be answered are two key questions: Who did it and will all the money be recovered? Law enforcement agencies are still investigating. A little more than half of the money — $1,982,314.12 — has been recovered.

“My main interest is who did it, and how we do hold them accountable?” Arriola said. “And how do we get the rest of the money back?”

My main interest is who did it, how we do hold them accountable, and how do we get the rest of the money back?

Commissioner Ricky Arriola

The theft, first reported by the Herald about two weeks after it was discovered, revealed a vulnerable finance department that appeared to have staffing issues.

Starting in June 2016, someone began to siphon money out of the city’s SunTrust account through unauthorized automatic payments, the same way one would set up automatic transfers to pay personal bills. Public money from permit fees, water bills, resort taxes and red-light camera fees were in that account, which had a daily balance ranging from $46 million to $144 million.

The problem wasn’t noticed until December, when officials scrambled to move the money into a new account with fraud control, forced two finance employees to resign, hired additional financial analysts and instituted a bevy of internal controls that probably should have been there in the first place.

City Manager Jimmy Morales has stated there is no indication that city staffers are to blame for the stolen money.

The fact that the finance department did not notice money being siphoned off for six months shocked taxpayers and elected officials. Morales, a first-time city manager, publicly took responsibility for his administration’s failure to detect the theft earlier.

The scandal sparked a shakeup in the department’s leadership just one year after a previous chief financial officer was forced to resign due to an improper manipulation of paid vacation and sick time. Allison Williams, then the city’s chief accountant, was elevated to CFO.

In January, Williams was demoted in the wake of the stolen $3.6 million. Former budget director John Woodruff, who had left for a job in Texas, was hired back as the new CFO.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

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