Friday, December 23, 2016

$3.6 million CITY OF MIAMI BEACH BANK ACCOUNT THEFT: Who guards the guardians?

Someone Stole $3.6 Million From Miami Beach's Bank Accounts
Someone Stole $3.6 Million From Miami Beach's Bank Accounts

Jason Koerner

Bank heists are a dangerous business. A skilled crew has to case a place for weeks, acquire weapons and masks, and then pull off a risky holdup within minutes before the cops show up. Of course, stealing huge piles of cash is a hell of a lot easier when you can directly access someone's bank account. And it's even simpler when it takes weeks for anyone to notice the money is missing.

That's exactly how someone walked away with $3.6 million worth of taxpayers' hard-earned money in Miami Beach, and city officials in charge of the accounts took months to raise an alarm.

"It's just very upsetting to me," says Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who learned of the theft with the rest of the commission last night when City Manager Jimmy Morales sent them a letter. "I find the whole thing incredibly shocking."

The FBI and local police are now scrambling to trace the missing millions, and although Morales says he doesn't believe city officials were directly involved in the crime, two top budget officers have already resigned over the fiasco.

The crime is just the latest black eye for a financial department marred in recent years by corruption and mismanagement. Last year, Chief Financial Officer Patricia Walker — long among the city's top-paid officials, with a salary well above $200,000 — and her aide resigned after they were caught cooking the books on paid vacation and sick time to boost their own payouts.

The details on the latest catastrophe are still sketchy. In his letter, Morales says the city noticed the problem Monday with an account the city keeps at SunTrust Bank to collect permit and water fees from residents.

Someone was able to rig that account, Morales says, to set up automatic payments to a variety of other accounts at other banks. He describes the city as being a victim of "bank fraud" in the scheme and says SunTrust has already requested the funds back from the other banks.

But who set up those auto-payments? And how did no one from Miami Beach's finance department notice that millions were being leeched away?

Those questions are still unanswered. Morales declined to name the two officials who resigned, though the Miami Herald reports they were managers in charge of accounts payable and Miami Beach's treasury.

"We have also engaged our Miami Beach Police Department and the FBI to conduct a full investigation," Morales writes.

The city has put new safeguards in place in the meantime, including opening a new account, canceling all auto-pay setups, and requiring a daily review of noncheck payouts from city funds.

There are fair questions to ask, of course, about why those safeguards weren't in place before $3.6 million walked out of City Hall.

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