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Columbia County's Good Ole' Boy Audit Club – 30 Years and Counting

During the Great Recession The 5 Gave Its Auditor 5% Every 2 Years

Posted August 10, 2014  09:58 am

External Auditor, County Financial Advisor, County Budget Advisor, and advisor to the County Internal Auditor, Richard Powell of Powell & Jones, presents the audit. Chairman Williams said about Auditor Powell, ""Beside God, that’s the next man I believe in.”

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – County Manager Dale Williams has been the County's County Manager (CM) for the past 30 years and Richard Powell has been the County External Auditor, County Financial Advisor, County Budget Advisor, and advisor to the County Internal Auditor for the same length of time. How involved in the Columbia County budget process is External Auditor Powell? On Thursday night, CM Williams told the County 5 and County residents, "He most definitely plays a role and has been as long as I've been [County] Manager." Not surprisingly, Florida's quintessential good ole' boy backroom county commission didn't have a single question about the negative audit findings brushed over by Auditor Powell.

First, A Little History: a guaranteed 5% every 2 years

Read more about Columbia County's infamous County 5.

Mr. Powell began auditing the County in the early 80s. The earliest Powell contract the County and the Observer have been able to locate is the Audit Contract Extension executed in April of 1990. Other than auditing, it states his services are only advisory.

On August 17, 2006, 16 years later, The County 5 approved an extension to the 1990 agreement, written by Richard Powell, which among other things guaranteed Powell & Jones an increase in its non-audit hourly rates of 5% every two years; and a five year extension, followed by automatic three year extensions. It does not appear that the extensions or Powell & Jones's 5% guarantee was made public before Commissioner Williams signed, stating that, "This letter correctly sets forth the understanding of Columbia County, Florida."

On October 16, 2008, your reporter, who is also a resident and property owner, addressed The County 5. The 2008 minutes reflect what transpired:

Mr. Lilker addressed the bookkeeping and auditing process of the county stressing the importance of the internal auditor operating at “arms length” from the external auditor. He said it is common knowledge that the internal auditor spends a significant amount of time at Richard Powell’s office who is the external auditor for the county. Mr. Lilker said it is obvious that Mr. Powell is involved in the day-to-day bookkeeping of the county and also does the audits [of] the county. He said that the documentation presented at the budget hearings was prepared by Richard Powell’s office. Mr. Lilker said it’s simply “not right” that in the county audit that findings made by the auditor are regarding his very own work. He asked that this practice be stopped.

Chairman [Dewey] Weaver responded that bookkeeping falls under the Clerk of the Courts office and should be addressed by that office, not the Board. County Manager Williams said that Chairman Weaver is correct, and added that because Mr. Powell does the external audit that it makes sense for him to be there, because it's going to be the same work as part of the audit process. Nonetheless, the County Manager said it makes no difference to him whether it is done separate and away from Mr. Powell or not, but that it may make a difference in the cost that is charged to the county. The County Manager told Mr. Lilker that he wasn’t certain that what was being characterized is actually happening, but that he understood his overall point and agreed with his point.

On September 10, 2009, County Manager Williams presented the FY 2009-10 tentative budget for approval. CM Williams is the Budget Officer for Columbia County. The budget was clearly produced at Powell & Jones.

The go between, between Columbia County and Powell & Jones remained the County's Internal Auditor, Judy Lewis, who did not use a computer and did not use Excel. As Commissioner Weaver pointed out the year before, Ms. Lewis worked for the Clerk, P. DeWitt Cason.

On December 27, 2012, County Manager Dale Williams  extended the Powell & Jones contract for another three years. Above his signature was the line, "This letter correctly sets forth the understanding of the Columbia County, Florida Board of County Commissioners." It is not clear how he knew this. The Powell & Jones contract was not brought back before the County 5 for discussion or approval.

Time sheet from External Auditor, Richard Powell.  + click to enlarge

In the third quarter of 2013, Richard Powell was clearly involved in planning the budget for the next fiscal year.

Last Thursday, County Manager Williams explained that External Auditor, Richard Powell, does play a part in preparing the budget. "We do ask Mr. Powell to perform certain functions that we use in preparing the budget and we always have," he said.

County Manager Williams claimed this was not a conflict of interest, "This issue has come up in the past. As a result of that, years ago, we contacted the Auditor Gen.'s office. We asked him to provide guidance. There is a specific scope of work that Mr. Powell is asked to do. And we had an independent third-party CPA review the scope of work and give an opinion as to whether or not it would constitute any conflict of interest and it did not."

Under the leadership of CM Williams, Columbia County has become one of the premier counties in the state when it comes to public records access. A request was made Friday morning: "Last night the County Manager mentioned he had opinions regarding Richard Powell in his capacity as the External Auditor for the County. Pursuant to the public record laws of FL please forward those opinion(s)."

The document arrived via email Friday afternoon.

The opinion was from the Georgia firm of Fowler, Holley, Rambo & Stalvey, P.C., certified public accountants. The opinion was requested by Richard Powell of Powell & Jones, not Columbia County, and the response is dated June 29, 2009. Mr. Powell's draft proposal was not attached, nor were there any enclosures. It was addressed to Richard Powell at his office. There was no information from the Florida Auditor General.

The record shows that Richard Powell, the External Auditor, has been actively involved in many areas of County finance: from Suwannee Valley Transit, to the IDA, to producing budgets, to getting involved in the latest negotiations regarding the percent based budgeting at the Sheriff's Office.

Auditor Powell Presented the Audit

During last Thursday night's audit presentation Auditor Powell brushed over his May 28, 2014 Management Letter (definition), which found compliance issues involving ongoing grant administration issues; thousands of dollars in stale and dated checks being mishandled; road and street capitalization issues (money going into the wrong funds); deficient travel documentation (that's Board travel); and finally investments wherein surplus funds were being put in the wrong accounts.

The law requires a response to the audit findings.

On June 24, 2014, the County Manager sent the County's response to the Florida Auditor General. While this letter was produced with the agenda material, Powell's Management Letter was not.

The 5 didn't mention one word about the negative audit findings, other than moving to accept the County Manager's response.

Commissioner Nash lobbed a softball and asked if the County could get the audit earlier. The answer amounted to a maybe. Commissioner Nash didn't follow up.

Commissioner Williams asked Mr. Powell, as he has for 30 years, how the County was doing.

Mr. Powell said on compliance, "[The County] had a few little issues." He did not elaborate –  none of The 5 asked.

Chairman Williams summed up the audit presentation. He said in 1986 Mr. Powell told the Board how to make the County stable in ten years.

Chairman Williams continued, "Beside God, that’s the next man I believe in.”


After 30 plus years, Richard Powell, Columbia County's External (read independent) Auditor, is clearly inside the arms length transaction radius. His status as the County's financial consultant, budget producer, and go to guy, at the very least gives the appearance of impropriety in a County that is legendary for its good ole' boy cronyism and back room dealing.

It is time for Columbia County to put out a request for proposals for an independent auditor and a fresh look at its books.


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