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Council-ordered investigations continuing

By Staff | Feb 11, 2020

A pair of investigations into alleged staff actions authorized by Cape Coral City Council a month ago are still ongoing.

Four weeks have passed and only parts of the probes being conducted by an outside workplace investigations firm and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are near completion with others not expected to be finished for some time, council, which was slated for an update, was told Monday.

Deborah Brown, who is conducting the administrative portion of the investigation related to a complaint letter sent by the head of the city’s Finance Department to the mayor and council, told City Attorney Dolores Menendez that two of the issues that the City Council has sought to look into are nearing completion and will be finished by the end of the week.

The FDLE component is still ongoing.

This left the question of whether City Council wanted to receive updates as portions of the probes are completed or whether the board wanted to hear the findings all at once. Although the council originally agreed to hear from the investigators if something serious arose, they have given the idea second thought.

“I want to get the entire package completed when the investigation is over with,” Councilmember John Carioscia said. “I don’t want to piecemeal this. I want to be able to digest it from beginning to end.”

Councilmembers Lois Welsh and Marilyn Stout said after thinking about it, seeing the entire investigation from start to finish would be the way to go.

Menendez said the timeline for completion is contingent on when the FDLE finishes its investigation.

The Cape Coral Police Department also is conducting an administration investigation related to the city’s Finance Department. Chief David Newlan said Monday he would need the audit report and possibly information from Brown to help them in their collection of the facts.

Carioscia said all persons involved must be made available to the investigators for interview, as well as any documents.

“If they’re looking into wrongdoing, they can compare the information. These people are sworn and certified by us and won’t run to the media with the information,” Carioscia said.

Mayor Joe Coviello said it was disappointing the investigations are taking so long, but that he believes the final report will be accurate.

As for it being made available to the public, Coviello said he wasn’t sure, since it involves personnel.

In addition to the letter, Coviello has raised the question of whether City Manager John Szerlag withheld information from council after an employee within the Finance Department incorrectly filed payroll taxes, resulting in fines and penalties of about $402,000 last year. As a result, the IRS withheld about $381,000 in gas tax revenue the city was expecting. The city, which believes it actually overpaid the amount of payroll taxes due, expects to recoup most of the money.

The matter was continuing to unfold while Szerlag was negotiating his final contract with the city before retirement set for November.

Coviello, who negotiated the agreement calling for an extension of Szerlag’s contract until his retirement, and a raise through the extension period, sought to have council fire him without cause.

The attempt failed twice as did a bid to suspend Szerlag while the issues were investigated.

Council instead, after discussion and legal advice, voted 6-2 to reach out to two outside entities, one to investigate the allegations outlined in the letter for possible criminal matters, the other for any administrative improprieties.

Council agreed to hire Brown Law & Consulting with its administrative investigation to be started in areas away from where the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was asked to look.

Council will receive transcripts of any interviews conducted the consulting firm.

Szerlag has said the allegations contained in the letter that led to the investigations are unfounded.