The Lake-Sumter Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) was hit with a bitingly negative audit from the Lake County Clerk of the Circuit and County Courts, coming down on them for using funds inappropriately and racking up costs for events they shouldn’t have spent so much on.

The MPO’s intent is to provide local governments, agencies and residents of Lake and Sumter counties a forum for addressing transportation issues.

According to the audit, the MPO has “serious inadequacies” in management and operation of the way it handles funds and grant money it receives.

In its summary, the audit goes on to list some of the problems, stating that director T.J. Fish works often from home without MPO approval, and allows other board members to do so, too.

“As a result of this situation, we cannot provide reasonable assurance that the Director and staff, who work largely from home, are working their required number of hours,” the audit reads.

The audit then goes on to say that the MPO often spent too much money on events it calls “questionable.”

“For example, the MPO Director paid the entry fee for the YMCA’s Dragon Boat in a Chamber of Commerce Dragon Boat event,” the audit reads. “This was at a time when the MPO Director was on the Board of the YMCA. The MPO has been routinely paying for the MPO memberships in various Chambers of Commerce, and has been paying for the Director’s lunch at these events. In some instances, the MPO has been paying extra to allow the MPO Director to speak at the luncheon or breakfast event.”

The audit also states that the MPO is not self funded and uses the County’s bank account for operations – and if it had been self funded, it would be in serious deficit and would not be able to continue.

“During the period July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015, the balance was never positive,” the audit reads. “The deficit was never less than $131,424.52, and on September 12, 2014, the balance due to Lake County rose to $479,711.99.”

The audit also accuses the MPO of occasionally soliciting donations from contractors for their annual dinner. The audit reads that this practice is inappropriate and could give off the appearance of corruption.

“We surveyed a list of the firms that were sent a letter for the January 2015 dinner and two of them acknowledged that MPO staff has called them directly asking for a contribution,” the audit reads.

One of them, according to the audit, believed that the MPO’s distribution of work on task orders is tied to donations.

In an email, Fish stated that the recommendations in the audit “are being addressed,” but also noted that there were no missing funds or illegal activities alleged in the audit. He said he viewed the audit as a constructive effort, and that he was implementing procedures to be more compliant with grant requirements and to provide more transparency as to the tasks they accomplish with public funds.

He stated that the organization had “received minimal non-grant funds that have been utilized as a discretionary fund,” and from that, none of what they had spent it on was a violation of policy. In addition, he said all discretionary spending has been suspended until policy action is taken by the Governing Board to establish a discretionary fund and eligible activities.

In response to the allegations of soliciting donations, Fish wrote that the MPO has never based consultant selection based on whether or not they had sponsored the annual dinner.

“We no longer accept sponsorships from any consulting firm with which we’ve had a contract during the last two years,” he wrote.

He also stated they were working on providing the board and state and federal agencies with more detailed information of what hours he and his employees worked.

In conclusion, Fish wrote that he believed he had done his job to the best of his ability.

“For 11 years, I have managed the MPO and I have never had an issue with state or federal agencies regarding grant compliance,” he wrote. “I follow MPO policies and Lake County policies as applicable regarding expenditures of public funds. As the executive director, it is my responsibility to work with my board to improve processes. That is exactly what I am doing.”

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