Law firm selects national firm to perform Manatee school district audit

MANATEE — Trenam Kemker, the law firm hired by the school district to select an agency to perform a forensic audit, chose a national firm with an office in Tampa.

The global consulting firm Navigant could begin an investigation of the 2011-12 fiscal year as soon as this Tuesday — if the school board approves the choice at a special meeting Monday.

A three-person Trenam Kemker team picked Navigant from 12 firms that responded to a request for proposals, said representative Charlie Harris before explaining his team’s approach in selecting the final choice.

Both Navigant and CPA-firm Cherry Bekaert & Holland, the second choice, had certified financial forensic examiners and an ability to begin work with 24 to 36 hours notice, Harris said.

Cherry Bekaert & Holland had more experience with school boards but had done some work for the county in 2003. The firm had waived the travel costs of transporting team members from Miami and Atlanta, but still had a more expensive blended rate — ranging from $275 to $324 an hour, Harris said.

Navigant will charge $250 an hour for its team members.

“The first place firm has no prior relationships of any kind with the Manatee County School Board,” Harris said. “We thought that their proposal in terms of the processes and the phases was extremely appropriate and persuasive.”

The audit committee has wanted to find an auditor with no ties to the district after former superintendent Tim McGonegal announced earlier this month that $8 million of overspending last year led to a $3.5 million deficit in this year’s budget.

The forensic audit aims to answer how the overspending occurred, who knew about it and how to prevent it from occurring again.

Trenam Kemker associate Brigid Merenda presented a preservation of evidence letter that will be sent to certain district employees next week. It states that electronic files are to be backed up and paper documents not destroyed or manipulated during the process.

She said the letter should be sent to employees who would have information related to the budget process — school board members, key employees including principals, internal employees responsible for accounting, budgeting and fiscal management and anyone who did outside accounting for the school last year.

School board attorney John Bowen and other committee members requested that the information technology, human resources, payroll and purchasing departments be added to the list.

At the committee meeting, Trenam Kemker representatives also commented on whether former employees can be required to cooperate with the audit investigation. Bowen has previously said that former employees, such as McGonegal, cannot be forced to participate because they no longer work for the district.

Forcing former employees to participate, Harris said, depends on what the auditors find.

“It depends on what we determine,” Harris said. “If there is reason to believe that embezzlement ... criminal actions have occurred, there is a way to force that conversation.”

The audit committee welcomed a new member Thursday.

Bobbie Windham, an internal audit manager at the Manatee Clerk of Circuit Court office, has filled the CPA spot left by Jan Brewer. She abstained from voting at Thursday’s meeting.

The school board has to approve Navigant at a special meeting at 10 a.m. Monday. It’s the same day that David Gayler begins as interim superintendent and takes an oath of office.

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.