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TC Palm
January 30, 2010

Michael Goforth: Fort Pierce Commission must act decisively to end scandal

By Michael Goforth

In a blog back in October, I wrote:

There has been a rumor (not begun by me) that there may be some favoritism in giving housing loans by the Fort Pierce Community Services Department.

The concerns are such that the city has called for an audit of the department and its operations.

Thanks to efforts by my sidekick, Oscar Opossum, I've received what appears to be a loan application. You can judge the validity of it for yourself.

1. Name

2. Income

3. Credit available on K-Mart credit card

4. Employer, if other than the city of Fort Pierce

5. Names of relatives employed by the city of Fort Pierce

6. Names of friends employed by the city of Fort Pierce

7. Names of friends who have relatives employed by the city of Fort Pierce

8. Names of friends who have relatives who have friends employed by the city of Fort Pierce

9. Signature

That fictitious application, as we're learning, may have been a little more accurate than we would want to believe. And, while I had attempted a bit of humor, no one is laughing now.

A new audit by a respected firm specializing in white-collar crime, Kessler International of New York City, was released last week and claimed a systemic pattern of corruption that may have included fraud, theft, bribery and bid rigging. It was as if some members of the department considered the state and federal housing assistance funds they administered as their personal piggy banks, loaded with money to enrich themselves and their friends.

City Manager David Recor said he's forwarding the results to federal, state and local law enforcement representatives for investigation into possible criminal activity by city employees and their associates.

Much of this is coming after the horse has left the barn. Surely someone knew long before now that there was suspicious activity taking place in the Community Services Department.

And, it seems there was - at least as long as four years ago. In 2006, Brian O'Connor, the new head of the Community Services Department at the time, warned the City Commission of practices he considered suspicious. Within months, O'Connor lost his job.

If the stench in the department were confined there, that would be one matter. But, the smell has spread elsewhere in City Hall.

The department came under investigation last October, shortly after which I wrote that blog, thanks to questions raised by private citizens and an unknown whistleblower. Assistant Finance Director Melissa Moore has now identified herself as the whistleblower who reported finding irregularities in paperwork from the Community Services Department that came through the Finance Office for review and recording.

Moore claims that, since then, someone hacked into her work computer in October and accessed her personal e-mail account. She also says she's being harassed at work.

The question becomes: Who can be trusted at City Hall? The answer must come from city commissioners by their actions. Any commissioner who attempts to defend what is indefensible should be held accountable by fellow commissioners and an outraged public.

The foul conditions in the Community Services Department may have been brewing for a long time. Cleaning up the mess shouldn't take long, though. But, it's going to require some honesty, strength and leadership. It's going to require decisive action.

Foot dragging and hoping this scandal will simply go away is no option.

Follow Goforth's blog at tcpalm.com/goforth. Contact him at (772) 409-1332 or michael.goforth@scripps.com.

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