A group of state lawmakers representing Lee County want an audit of how the government spent disaster relief dollars there.
Part of the county’s legislation delegation, including Sen. Jonathan Martin and Reps. Adam Botana, Tiffany Esposito and Mike Giallombardo sent a letter to Lee County Clerk Kevin Karnes calling for a full audit of spending the last three years. Specifically, lawmakers asked for scrutiny of county depositories, citing a statute allowing for oversight by Florida’s Auditor General.
“We also respect and support your request to memorialize the conflict-of-interest ordinance to increase transparency and fiscal accountability,” the letter reads.
The letter also asks about any monies that have been directed to municipalities, and in relation how that compares to what each municipality contributes in local revenues to the county.
“Our goal is to learn and identify waste and abuse,” the letter reads.
It requests the audit to be completed within a year.
Rep. Giallombardo, a Cape Coral Republican, spearheaded the letter. Of note, he fought this year for some $700 million in recovery funding to be included in the state budget, with most of that landing in Lee after Hurricane Ian made landfall there last fall. That funding came after Giallombardo carried a bill in a Special Session shortly after the storm, providing emergency relief to Lee County.
“I don’t want this to be misconstrued,” Giallombardo said. “I’m not targeting anybody or going after anybody. At the end of the day, tons of money came into this county, and more is coming in. We have a task force and federal funding. There’s a ton of moving parts. Audits aren’t all bad.”
He said the goal was simply providing a layer of oversight on the massive inflow of dollars to the region, not only following the recent storm but after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, the letter immediately raised eyebrows. Notably, only half the Lee County legislative delegation, which is entirely made up of Republican members, signed the letter. Sens. Ben Albritton and Kathleen Passidomo did not sign the message, nor did Reps. Jenna Persons-Mulicka and Spencer Roach.
Roach said he was asked to sign but declined.
“I know each one of Lee County’s Commissioners personally, and I can attest to their integrity and ethics. I do not have any reason to believe that they are misappropriating funds or engaged in any type of impropriety (real or perceived) with the tax dollars under their stewardship,” said Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican.
“I am proud that I worked hard to bring $350 million back to this community to aid with hurricane recovery, and the County Commission has my full trust and confidence that they are spending every penny in the best interest of our taxpayers and our community. Furthermore, Lee County has an elected Clerk of Courts with full authority under the law to conduct an audit if he sees fit — he does not need the state’s permission. As a strong advocate for home rule, I would prefer to let the system of checks and balances at the county level work without state interference.”
Passidomo, the sitting Florida Senate President, said she was not consulted on the letter at all.
“I was not asked, nor did I know anything about it,” she said.
Lee County Commission Chair Brian Hamman said he has reached out to lawmakers about what prompted the letter. “I don’t view it as aggressive or coming after us in any way,” he said.
And lawmakers say that’s the case. Martin, a Fort Myers Republican, noted that beyond state disaster relief, Lee County expects $1.1 billion to come its way from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department. He doesn’t want money wasted.
“This is conservative, Republican-led part of the country,” he said, “and this is a reminder we don’t do business like the rest of the country, and want to make sure every penny is accounted for.”
Botana, a Bonita Springs Republican, said state oversight was a fiduciary responsibility of lawmakers. “Checks and balances are good across the board,” he said.
The state, of note, already requires every county in Florida to conduct an audit each year, and Lee County’s last audit identified no major issues. But Giallombardo said he wanted a more thorough audit than the one conducted annually to comply with the statute.
Notably, the letter doesn’t limit a call for an audit to disaster relief funds, and would cover all county departments, as well as budgets administered by constitutional officers like the Sheriff, which last year saw a record $241 million in its budget in the wake of the storm, and by other governments such as the school district, where the budget last year reached $2.1 billion.
“It’s just a good look at everything,” Giallombardo said. “That’s the great part of it. We’ve got to take a look at everything.”