News broke that the feds were looking at Lynn Haven in April. Local news outlets reported in June that the Bay County School District had also received FBI subpoenas.

Lynn Haven — With the FBI and IRS sniffing around, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern Florida having established a Public Trust Unit to root out municipal corruption, the Lynn Haven City Commission has decided to do some housekeeping of its own.

Commissioners voted 5-0 on Tuesday to spend up to $100,000 for a forensic audit and indicated at least a grudging willingness to put up more money if improprieties are found.

News broke that the feds were looking at Lynn Haven in April. Local news outlets reported in June that the Bay County School District had also received FBI subpoenas.

In announcing the formation of the Public Trust Unit on Aug. 8, Larry Keefe, the U.S. Attorney for Northern Florida, pledged to focus on “identifying, investigating, disrupting and prosecuting government corruption.”

The City Commission vote for the audit came at the urging of Commissioner Judy Tinder, who claimed to have uncovered enough evidence of wrongdoing in two weeks of research to warrant a deep dive into the behavior of city officials following Hurricane Michael and in all likelihood, before that time.

“I don’t want to just skim the frosting off the cake, I want to go at least to the first layer of the cake and, based on what we find, maybe we go all the way down to the plate,” Tinder said.

Tinder said she and a fellow city resident had combed through just six of more than 200 files and found what they considered to be “blatant fraud” as well as “previous poor management practices” that justified her call for an audit.

“It appears a great deal of money has been spent and many favors seemed to have been done for others,” she told fellow commissioners.

Tinder pointed specifically to questionable conduct by city officials in paying for debris clearing work done by Erosion Control Specialists, a company targeted in the ongoing FBI investigation of Lynn Haven, inside a private gated community.

She also said she’d found evidence of possible misappropriations involving Greenleaf Lawn Care of Bay County, a company named alongside Erosion Control Specialists in FBI subpoenas seeking documentation of spending practices following Hurricane Michael.

Officials from Erosion Control Specialists and Greenleaf Lawn Care of Bay County did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.

Tinder told her fellow commissioners she’d also uncovered a 2016 land deal in which a company managed by former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense paid $329,000 for just over an acre of waterfront property valued at the time at $535,000.

Bay County Property Appraiser records show another Bense-managed corporation profited by $577,500 from the sale of the purchased land.

A third Bense company, GAC Contractors Inc., is among those from which the FBI has subpoenaed records in its ongoing investigation initiated in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. The agency has sought records of GAC Contractors Inc. work done for the Bay County School District.

“We do a lot of work with a lot of communities and have been around for a lot of years,” Bense said when asked about the FBI investigation.

Asked if he had information about the focus of the inquiry, Bense replied, “I don’t know what they’re looking for. I just try to keep my head down and move forward.”

The city of Lynn Haven produced invoices as public records that Tinder contends show that between Oct. 21, 2018 and March 15, 2019, former City Manager Michael White signed off on payments for clearing debris inside the gated community of Osceola Point.

“Every time sheet included an average of 25 employees, every employee signed in at 6 a.m. and all signed out at 5 p.m., seven days a week,” Tinder told fellow commissioners. “There are no lunch hours documented for this time and the city was billed $65 per hour per person.”

She said she’d also uncovered evidence that another Erosion Control employee, whose back was broken in a work-related accident, was left on the time sheets even after he was injured.

The land transaction cited by Tinder involving Bense was consummated in October of 2016. To buy the property, Bense’s company, Bense Properties LLC, offered $329,000 and beat out bids of William and Claire Rhodes and Kim and Adam Ellisor to obtain the 1.2 acre site. The Rhodes, of Lake City, offered $251,000 for the property and the Ellisors, of Panama City, $229,000.

While the original appraised value of the property was $525,000, the city received no bids to buy it when, in April 2016, it offered to sell for no less than that price. Likewise, no bids came in June, when the city advertised it for sale at a minimum bid price of $425,000.

Bense said he had not heard that the sale of the land he’d bought from the city, which is located on Iowa Avenue, had become a controversial issue in Lynn Haven. He said his participation in the transaction involved seeing an advertisement, looking over the land for sale and offering a successful bid.

“If I did something wrong, I don’t know what it is,” he said.

Joel Schubert, the then-Lynn Haven city manager who negotiated the Iowa Avenue land sale to Bense Properties, is now an assistant county manager for Bay County. Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson was in office at the time of the sale and signed off on the deal.

She said Thursday the land sale was one of several items whose handling she and Schubert disagreed upon.

“He had a hard time adapting to my way of doing things,” she said. “What I would have done is I would have recommended we hold onto that land until we could find a buyer willing to pay the appraised value.”

Once sold, the Iowa Avenue parcel came under the purview of the Lynn Haven Properties Group, a company which lists Bense and Stephen Humphrey, a realtor who helped negotiate the 2016 sale, as managers.

The property group subdivided the land into four waterfront parcels that were sold in late 2017 and early 2018 for a total of $906,500. Presently three owners, Jason and Tina Kennon, Jason Tunnell and Donald and Tracy Coker, control some portion of the 1.2 acres, all of which remains vacant land, according to the Property Appraiser’s website.

The Iowa Avenue property sale will not be the focus of the initial investigation by whatever forensic auditor is brought in by the city. Commissioner Dan Russell agreed to go along with Tinder’s call to action only if she would agree to limit initial spending to $100,000, focus first on city activity following Hurricane Michael and only be allowed to continue if impropriety was discovered.

Tinder and the rest of the commission agreed to go along with Russell’s recommendation. They also decided, according to Anderson, to put out a request for qualifications and to consider proposals from different auditing firms as soon as legally possible to do so.

Anderson told commissioners prior to their vote on the audit, that she had seen the documents Tinder presented as evidence of impropriety in the city.

She also said Thursday it is not entirely fair that “Lynn Haven has been placed in the spotlight” by the media. Anderson said she does not believe her municipality is the only governmental entity impacted by Hurricane Michael that has fallen under federal scrutiny.

“I don’t believe it’s unusual to look at the actions of cities and counties involved in receiving federal funding,” she said.