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Complaints to result in investigations

By Staff | Jan 2, 2020

Cape Coral City Council has opted for outside investigators in the wake of a letter alleging improprieties by the city’s administration.

Council convened in a special meeting Thursday and, after discussion and legal advice, voted 6-2 to reach out to two outside entities, one to investigate the allegations for possible criminal matters, the other for any administrative improprieties.

Council stopped short of placing City Manager John Szerlag on paid administrative leave for the duration of the investigations, saying the board will wait for a recommendation on that issue from the entities tapped.

A decision on that could come as early as Monday when the city attorney and police chief report back as to whether the FDLE and a firm the city regularly uses for personnel matter are available to take up the task.

“Council needed to meet to see what we do going forward. A lot of things have come forth since Nov. 18 when we did an amendment on Szerlag’s contract,” Mayor Joe Coviello said. “Most of this came shortly after that which built on other things that we’ve been looking at the past several weeks.”

Coviello had hoped to hold the special meeting sooner, but Councilmember Lois Welsh was on vacation, pushing the meeting to Thursday.

There are at least three other investigations already underway, Council was told Thursday — one by the chief of police, one by the fire chief and one by FDLE.

Because they are active, no details were released.

The matter started when there were improprieties found in the city’s IRS payroll taxes, which were to be paid by a “low-level” supervisor.

This came to light when the gas tax receipts (about $381,000) were withheld by the IRS and the fines and penalties were discovered in a desk in October.

The city was dinged $402,000 by the IRS, which the city hopes to recoup as city officials believe the city actually over, not under, paid.

Szerlag, meanwhile, placed three city employees, including Finance Director Victoria Bateman, on paid leave.

Bateman sent a registered letter to the city on Monday, bringing forward the allegations now to be investigated.

“I’m happy we will have an independent investigator looking at this instead of us investigating ourselves,” Coviello said. “There was a lack of transparency and council should have been notified what was taking place.”

There will be an investigator for the alleged improprieties and for any criminal investigation, although Coviello believes there was nothing illegal.

What the mayor did believe was that Szerlag was not being transparent about the finance issues, especially when it came so close to his contract extension.

In fact, it led to a testy exchange between the mayor and city manager, in which Coviello essentially called Szerlag a liar. He said there was an auditor’s report that said he knew about the situation as early as Oct. 24, three weeks prior to when a council member spoke to him about it.

“I’m open to this investigation because I’m here to maintain my stellar reputation,” Szerlag said. “I don’t want to just go fishing and golfing when I retire. I want my reputation intact so I can do other things.”

Szerlag denied the accusations and did not comment after the meeting.

The decision to hold the meeting was not popular. Councilmember John Carioscia said nothing should be decided until all the facts were determined and didn’t seem concerned with the internal investigation led by police, and human resources and the finance department.

“There’s no reason to not be patient. Let the police chief do his investigation and then meet back here without jeopardizing those under investigation.”

Coviello said with all the investigations going on inside the city, there seems to be a lack of leadership at the top.

“If you have a strong leader would you have all these investigations taking place. Right now we’re investigating ourselves,” Coviello said. “The police chief doing an administrative investigation makes no sense. When you put three finance people on leave, that costs the taxpayers money for work not being done.”