MANATEE -- The district audit committee has chosen two law firms to present to the school board at Monday night's board meeting.
The committee recommends the Tampa and St. Petersburg-based law firm Trenam Kemker to oversee a forensic audit of the 2011-12 school year, which the district hopes will shed light on the circumstances surrounding a $3.5 million deficit in this year's budget. The committee's second choice is Carlton Fields, a law firm based in Tampa.
Last week, committee members contacted several firms outside of the district after deciding a law firm would ensure that the district would not be involved in choosing the auditor who would examine finances from last year.
Four law firms sent in proposals by last Friday, though Carlton Fields and Trenam Kemker were the only firms to send representatives to Monday morning's audit meeting.
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It was the clarity of the Trenam Kemker proposal that put it over the edge as the No. 1 pick for audit committee members. The law firm's proposal involves a three-lawyer team and hourly rates that have suited public sector clients before, said representative Charlie Harris. The firm is not committed to a specific audit firm at this time.
The top lawyer would earn $275 an hour, and two others would earn $250 each, according to the proposal.
Committee member Lynn Lineman said he felt certain that Trenam Kemker understood the role the committee wants the law firm to have in the audit process. Last week, members determined that the law firm will act as a liaison between a chosen audit firm and the school board, and not manage the audit itself.
If negotiations fall through with Trenam Kemker, than Carlton Fields is the committee's next pick.
Edward Page, a representative from Carlton Fields, said their firm would defer to the Tampa-based investigative agency Chase & Associates to conduct the audit. Chase & Associates is made up of former law enforcement investigators who are trained in audit investigations.
The Chase & Associates rate was around $125 an hour, Page said. Lineman said it is not clear how much in total this law firm would cost the district.
Committee member and school board member Karen Carpenter said her top priority in choosing a law firm was maintaining independence from the district.
"There is a perception that any relationship (to the district) would compromise objectivity," Carpenter said.
Both representatives publicly affirmed that their employees are not tied to Manatee County.
Members of the public who were concerned that the auditor general was not going to be involved in the forensic audit were informed that the auditor general will perform a routine audit in the spring. The district is audited by the auditor general every three years.
"Regardless of what we do, they will still come in and do an audit in the spring," committee chairman Jim Toomey said.
Committee members also acknowledged that the narrow scope of the law firm's role could change based on what is found during the forensic audit investigation.
"It goes where it goes," committee member Harry Kinnan said.
The school board will vote tonight on whether to approve the audit committee's recommendation.
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.