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A critical audit, a fired inspector

The secretary of state's employees bought first-class foreign air travel and misused cell phones, state auditors find.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2001


The secretary of state's employees bought first-class foreign air travel and misused cell phones, state auditors find.

TALLAHASSEE -- Secretary of State Katherine Harris is in hot water with her former inspector general and with state auditors who are criticizing her operations and the way she spends state travel money.

State Auditor General William O. Monroe reported that Harris' employees sometimes traveled first-class air to foreign cities, failed to monitor personal use of 55 cellular telephones assigned to her office and routinely misreported some expenditures.

In a separate report, former inspector general Dwight Chastain said Harris' department violates a state law requiring him to report directly to her. Harris fired Chastain this week, and he says it's because of the critical report.

"It was either do what they want, be fired or resign," Chastain said Friday.

David Host, spokesman for Harris, described the audit criticism as "procedural and administrative" and said it was "a small amount of criticism for a two-year period." He said all of the problems have been corrected, but would not discuss Chastain's departure because it is a personnel matter.

Although Harris has spent much of her 21/2 years in office pursuing international relations, she attracted worldwide attention for her handling of Florida's close presidential vote. Her decision to declare George W. Bush the winner was praised by Republicans and strongly denounced by Democrats.

Even before the audits, lawmakers appointed a special committee to examine travel expenditures and other expenses associated with international relations in Harris' department.

The review by the auditor general found a number of instances where employees in Harris' department bought first-class or business-class tickets for foreign travel instead of less-expensive coach-class tickets, violations of state travel regulations.

The auditors also found Harris had no procedures for screening personal calls made on state cell phones.

Reviewing expenditures made between July 1, 1999, and March 31, 2001, auditors determined that more than 38 percent of the calls could not be associated with a valid state purpose.

Harris' staff routinely recorded expenditures made by one division as being made by another. For example, expenditures incurred by a Latin American affairs consultant for foreign travel were attributed to the state Division of Elections. Cell phone expenses incurred by Harris' own office were listed as expenditures by the Division of Corporations.

State auditors, employed by the Legislature, said misreporting expenditures makes it difficult for legislators to determine the actual costs for programs.

In a written response to the auditors, Harris said she has begun reviewing cellular telephone bills and will accurately record future expenditures.

Although there appears to be no connection to the critical audit, Harris fired her inspector general this week after he balked at changing a report on the department's financial operations.

The dispute arose as Chastain prepared an annual report that is required of inspectors general at all state agencies. In the report, Chastain said, he noted that Harris' office was in violation of a state law that requires the inspector general to report directly to the head of an agency.

Chastain, 57, says he only talked directly with Harris once during the two years he held the job and was forced to communicate only through Assistant Secretary Dave Mann.

"That is an inappropriate way of doing it," Chastain said. "The secretary or agency head has to have confidence in the inspector general and the inspector has to have the ear of the secretary."

The jobs were created at state agencies to promote accountability, integrity and efficiency in government.

Shortly after submitting a draft of his report, Chastain said Mann accused him of trying to embarrass Harris and on Wednesday presented him with a one-sentence letter dismissing him from his job.

Chastain said he asked to submit a letter of resignation and was allowed to write a second letter. Then he was escorted back to his office, allowed to clear out his personal possessions and escorted from the building where he has worked for almost 15 years. Before taking the position as inspector general, he worked in the department's Division of Licensing.

"I just make recommendations based on the law," Chastain said. "If they don't like the law, they should change it, not shoot the messenger."

"It was not my intent to embarrass her," he added. "I was just trying to do my job. I think there was a misunderstanding and I'd like to sit down and resolve it."

A Republican, Harris is an elected member of the state Cabinet. Her office is composed of seven divisions with responsibilities including preserving historical sites, supervising elections, support for the arts, developing library services, registering corporations and issuing licenses for concealed firearms.

Harris has defended her work, saying she believes her efforts have improved commerce and cultural exchanges with other countries. Since taking office in January 1999, Harris has traveled to Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Venezuela, Mexico, Canada, Panama and Barbados.

Her office was one of several abolished in a 1998 revision of the Florida Constitution. Harris is reportedly planning to run for Congress in 2002 in a heavily Republican district.

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