Oops! - $3.6 million missing in Miami Beach amid fraud investigation

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

By Joey Flechas   

Published January 5, 2017


About $3.6 million is missing from one of Miami Beach’s bank accounts, leaving administrators and law enforcement agencies scrambling to figure out how it happened, who did it and why no one noticed earlier.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the city commission, City Manager Jimmy Morales said he learned earlier this week that someone had accessed bank information for one of the city’s accounts and illegally set up an automatic transfer to other banks. The money moved the way one would set up automatic payments out of a personal bank account to pay monthly bills.

Over an unspecified period of time, dozens of transfers from the Beach’s SunTrust account amounted to $3.6 million — taxpayer money that flowed out of the city’s coffers and should have been noticed by the finance department.

“This is shocking,” said Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. “I am waiting for an explanation.”

Morales said the city is the victim of bank fraud and that he doesn’t believe city employees are to blame, but details won’t be clear until the investigation concludes. Two managers in the finance department who Morales said should have noticed the unauthorized transfers resigned Wednesday as Beach police and FBI agents continue looking into what happened.

“I don’t think we could have prevented this, but we should have caught it sooner,” Morales said in an interview Wednesday night. He said he is examining how internal controls failed to catch the problem immediately.“This was not just one month of activity. We probably should have caught it earlier, and I’m trying to figure out if we did something wrong and where that happened.”

The account that was pilfered, which has since been closed, was a general account used to house money collected from permit fees and water bills. This money goes to pay government bills, such as payments to Miami-Dade County for drinking water. Dollars are also transferred to other city accounts for other expenses, including payroll.

Morales said the city has sent claims to the banks that received the transfers to get the funds returned. The compromised SunTrust account is now closed, and a new one with tighter monitoring has been opened. Most automatic payments have been stopped. The city’s staff is now reviewing transactions every day and reconciling all money being paid out in electronic transfers.

No money was missing from any of the city’s other accounts, but tighter controls were put on all of them, a city spokeswoman said.

According to sources familiar with the circumstances, the managers overseeing accounts payable and the city’s treasury division were forced to resign Wednesday after the money was found to be missing. Morales declined to name the employees.

The bombshell revelation comes one year after another unexpected shakeup in the Beach’s finance department. In September 2015, the city’s top two financial officers — longtime chief financial officer Patricia Walker and Georgie Echert, assistant finance director — were forced to resign after the administration learned that they manipulated paid vacation and sick time to benefit future payouts when they left the city. Both hastily submitted resignations scribbled on notebook paper.
Late Wednesday, Mayor Philip Levine said that fraud, hacks and identity theft hit individuals and companies alike.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “You say it can’t happen to you, until it happens to you.”