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External Auditor Richard Powell - The 40 Year Man On The 5's Docket Tonight: Time For a New Face?

Chairman Williams (2014):  Beside God, that’s the next man I believe in.

Posted March 19, 2015  07:20 am

External Auditor, County Financial Advisor, County Budget Advisor, and advisor to the County Internal Auditor, Richard Powell of Powell & Jones, presents the 2014 audit. County 5 Chairman Williams said about Auditor Powell, "Beside God, that’s the next man I believe in.”

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Tonight, the Columbia County 5 is going to decide whether or not to make its forever Auditor, Richard Powell, secure for another 40 years.  State law required an Audit Committee of the Constitutional Officers and County Chair to be formed to give the County 5 input. Last week, they did, and they unanimously decided to negotiate another contract with Mr. Powell. County 5 Chairman, Rusty DePratter, voted with the Constitutionals. Tonight the public will see if the rest of The 5 will "go along to get along" and support the County Chair.

Read more about Columbia County's infamous County 5.

2014 Audit: Powell – The Everything Man

County Manager Dale Williams has been Columbia County's County Manager for the past 30 plus years and Richard Powell has been the County External Auditor, County Financial Advisor, County Budget Advisor, and until her retirement, advisor to the County Internal Auditor, longer than that.

Richard Powell (file photo)

How involved in the Columbia County budget process is External Auditor Powell? On August 7, 2014, County Manager Williams told the County 5 and County residents, "He most definitely plays a role and has been as long as I've been [County] Manager."

When The 5 heard Mr. Powell's 2014 Audit presentation it didn't have a single question about the negative audit findings he just brushed over. When Mr. Powell needed help preparing the Audit Presentation PowerPoint, the County dispatched its web-master to come to the rescue.

A Little History: a guaranteed 5% every 2 years in the back-room

Mr. Powell began auditing the County sometime in the 1970's. The earliest Powell contract the County and the Observer have been able to locate is the Audit Contract Extension executed in April of 1990. Other than auditing, it states his services are only advisory.

On August 17, 2006, 16 years later, The County 5 approved an extension to the 1990 agreement, written by Richard Powell, which among other things guaranteed Powell & Jones an increase in its non-audit hourly rates of 5% every two years; and a five year extension, followed by automatic three year extensions. It does not appear that the extensions or Powell & Jones' 5% guarantee was made public before Commissioner Williams signed, stating that, "This letter correctly sets forth the understanding of Columbia County, Florida."

On October 16, 2008, your reporter, who is also a resident and property owner, addressed The County 5. The 2008 minutes reflect what transpired:

Mr. Lilker addressed the bookkeeping and auditing process of the county stressing the importance of the internal auditor operating at “arms length” from the external auditor. He said it is common knowledge that the internal auditor spends a significant amount of time at Richard Powell’s office who is the external auditor for the county. Mr. Lilker said it is obvious that Mr. Powell is involved in the day-to-day bookkeeping of the county and also does the audits [of] the county. He said that the documentation presented at the budget hearings was prepared by Richard Powell’s office. Mr. Lilker said it’s simply “not right” that in the county audit that findings made by the auditor are regarding his very own work. He asked that this practice be stopped.

Chairman [Dewey] Weaver responded that bookkeeping falls under the Clerk of the Courts office and should be addressed by that office, not the Board. County Manager Williams said that Chairman Weaver is correct, and added that because Mr. Powell does the external audit that it makes sense for him to be there, because it's going to be the same work as part of the audit process. Nonetheless, the County Manager said it makes no difference to him whether it is done separate and away from Mr. Powell or not, but that it may make a difference in the cost that is charged to the county. The County Manager told Mr. Lilker that he wasn’t certain that what was being characterized is actually happening, but that he understood his overall point and agreed with his point.

On September 10, 2009, County Manager Williams presented the FY 2009-10 tentative budget for approval. CM Williams is the Budget Officer for Columbia County. The budget was clearly produced at- by the External Auditor, Powell & Jones.

The County's Internal Auditor Worked For P. DeWitt Cason, Clerk of the Courts

The go between, between Columbia County and Powell & Jones remained the County's then Internal Auditor, Judy Lewis, who did not use a computer and did not use Excel. As Commissioner Weaver pointed out the year before, Ms. Lewis worked for the Clerk, P. DeWitt Cason.

The 2012 Powell Contract Extension: Who knew?

On December 27, 2012, County Manager Dale Williams  extended the Powell & Jones contract for another three years. Above his signature was the line, "This letter correctly sets forth the understanding of the Columbia County, Florida Board of County Commissioners." It is not clear how he knew this. The Powell & Jones contract was not brought back before the County 5 for discussion or approval.

Time sheet from External Auditor, Richard Powell.  + click to enlarge

In the third quarter of 2013, Richard Powell was clearly once again involved in planning the budget for the next fiscal year.

At the 2014 Audit Presentation, County Manager Williams explained that External Auditor Powell does play a part in preparing the budget. "We do ask Mr. Powell to perform certain functions that we use in preparing the budget and we always have," he said.

County Manager Williams claimed this was not a conflict of interest, "This issue has come up in the past. As a result of that, years ago, we contacted the Auditor Gen.'s office. We asked him to provide guidance. There is a specific scope of work that Mr. Powell is asked to do. And we had an independent third-party CPA review the scope of work and give an opinion as to whether or not it would constitute any conflict of interest and it did not."

Under the leadership of County Manager Williams, Columbia County has become one of the premier counties in the state when it comes to public records access.

Your reporter made a public record request the day after the 2014 Audit Presentation: "Last night the County Manager mentioned he had opinions regarding Richard Powell in his capacity as the External Auditor for the County. Pursuant to the public record laws of FL please forward those opinion(s)."

The document arrived via email Friday afternoon.

Powell requested a stamp of approval, not the County

The opinion was from the Georgia firm of Fowler, Holley, Rambo & Stalvey, P.C., certified public accountants. The opinion was requested by Richard Powell of Powell & Jones, not Columbia County, and the response is dated June 29, 2009. Mr. Powell's draft proposal was not attached, nor were there any enclosures. It was addressed to Richard Powell at his office. There was no information from the Florida Auditor General.

The record shows that Richard Powell, the External Auditor, has been actively involved in many areas of County finance: from Suwannee Valley Transit, to the IDA, to producing budgets, to getting involved in the latest negotiations regarding the percent based budgeting at the Sheriff's Office.

2014: The Powell Audit Brush-over, The 5 Played Along

During the August 7, 2014 Audit Presentation, Auditor Powell brushed over his May 28, 2014 Management Letter (definition), which found compliance issues involving ongoing grant administration issues; thousands of dollars in stale and dated checks being mishandled; road and street capitalization issues (money going into the wrong funds); deficient travel documentation (that's Board travel); and finally investments wherein surplus funds were being put in the wrong accounts.

The law requires a response to the audit findings.

On June 24, 2014, the County Manager sent the County's response to the Florida Auditor General. While this letter was produced with the agenda material, Powell's Management Letter was not.

The 5 didn't mention one word about the negative audit findings, other than moving to accept the County Manager's response.

Not one of The County 5 asked why the County's Internal Auditor, Judy Lewis, who at times was in daily contact with Mr. Powell, didn't pick this up.

The Clerk of the Court's, P. DeWitt Cason, was Internal Auditor Lewis' Boss. He was silent.

Mr. Powell said on compliance, "[The County] had a few little issues." He did not elaborate –  none of The 5 asked.

Board Chairman Ronald Williams told the County 5, "Beside God, that’s the next man I believe in.”


After 40 years, Richard Powell, Columbia County's External (read independent) Auditor, is clearly inside the arms length transaction radius. His status as the County's financial consultant, former budget producer, and go to guy, at the very least gives the appearance of impropriety in a County that is legendary for its good ole' boy cronyism and back room dealing.

Tonight, Columbia County's Infamous 5 will decided if the County's Constitutional Officers' and Chairman DePratter's advice was sound, or if they will after 40 years, put out a request for another External Auditor.


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