How did tire theft scheme pass unnoticed by county?

If now-retired Emergency Services Assistant Chief Brian Burkeen did what sheriff’s detectives and state prosecutors say he did – if he is found guilty of first-degree grand theft for charging nearly $300,000 worth of tires to the county’s accounts and selling them for profit – then he deserves to spend some serious time in jail.

That part is simple.

What’s a bit more complicated is this: If the allegations are true, how was Burkeen able to perpetrate a scheme of this magnitude over a period of at least three and a half years without anyone getting suspicious?

How did he get all those Goodyear invoices past his boss, John King, the county’s Emergency Services Chief, who was supposed to sign off on them?

How could County Administrator Jason Brown and his predecessor, Joe Baird, not notice the purchase of all those tires and not get curious enough to ask about them?

How did these expenditures not get questioned by the county’s Office of Management & Budget, or the county’s independent external auditors, or anyone in the offices of Jeff Smith, the county’s Clerk of the Circuit Court, which under Florida statutes serves as the county’s comptroller and is responsible for reviewing the county’s finances?

Clearly, the system set up to prevent such shady dealings failed, and so did the people manning that system – despite the feeble attempt at spin we’re getting from the county, which didn’t notice anything unusual until this year, when one of King’s assistants flagged an excessive number of tires purchased during the first weeks of 2018.

King, who retired Monday, alerted the sheriff’s office on Feb. 27, and detectives immediately launched an investigation that resulted in Burkeen’s arrest on March 26.

“The county has numerous internal controls in place to ensure good oversight of taxpayer dollars,” Brown wrote last month in an emailed response to this newspaper’s inquiries regarding Burkeen’s alleged theft and how the tire purchases went undetected for so long.

He wrote that such purchases require “multiple signature authority,” adding that King also “had to sign off” on them. Instead of assigning blame to the chief, however, Brown seemed to praise him. Not for doing anything extraordinary, but for doing what he should have done in that situation – call the cops when he finally noticed what was going on and suspected a crime had been committed.

Brown continued to embrace that we-did-what-we-were-supposed-to-do theme throughout his responses, citing the required reviews of all invoices by the county’s OMB and the finance division of the clerk’s office, as well as the annual audits done by an independent external firm hired by the county.

He stated that, in addition to the law-enforcement investigation, the county staff, clerk’s office and independent external auditors have conducted their own re-examination of the tire purchases.

“The auditors have informed staff that they deem our internal controls adequate.”

Oh, really?

Then how, if the allegations against him are true, was Burkeen able to steal $288,000 worth of tires from the county between June 2014 and February 2018 and sell them privately at a discount for cash?

How did those “internal controls” not catch the $28,000 in tires Burkeen allegedly purchased in a span of only 20 days earlier this year, or set off an alarm when the funds the county had designated to pay Goodyear in fiscal 2018, which runs through September, were already depleted in January?

Why, despite all the internal reviews of invoices and external audits of expenditures, didn’t anyone notice that many of the tires purchased from the Vero Beach Goodyear stores weren’t the right size to fit the vehicles in the Emergency Services Department’s fleet?

Shouldn’t King have suspected something was wrong sooner, knowing that the department didn’t need all those tires?

And what about the people who bought the allegedly ill-gotten tires from Burkeen, particularly his coworkers in the county’s Fire Rescue division?

Didn’t any of them wonder why he was able to offer such bargains? Or was it simply that they didn’t care, as long as they were getting a deal?

Did any of them suspect something was amiss but, fearing a backlash at their workplace, choose to remain silent – at least until the sheriff’s office began investigating?

For the record: Detectives and prosecutors said they have no reason to believe, at this point, that any of the buyers knew the tires were stolen. Similarly, they said they had found no evidence that any Goodyear employees were aware of Burkeen’s alleged scheme.

But State Attorney Bruce Colton said the investigation is continuing to “determine if other people are involved in this case and if anyone else is criminally culpable.”

Meanwhile, despite his defense of current protocols, Brown said he and his staff are reassessing the county’s internal control procedures with the purpose of making the improvements necessary to prevent similar thefts in the future.

Brown also wrote: “We will take every measure available to the county to recover misappropriated taxpayer dollars.”

That is a good thing – as long as the county goes after the right people.

If Burkeen is guilty, go after him, even if it means taking his pension to make restitution. If sheriff’s detectives and state prosecutors identify and arrest others who were in on the alleged scheme, go after them, too.

As for Goodyear, the county on Monday hadn’t yet paid the $28,000 it owes for that last batch of tires, citing concerns about missing information on the invoices.

In a Feb. 26 letter to the Goodyear Auto Service Center on 58th Avenue, King disputed the bill, writing that the invoices provided “no information identifying the vehicle year, make or mileage.”

In a follow-up letter on March 7, King again disputed the invoices, which he called “improper,” and refused payment, writing that the company could “challenge” his decision by appealing to Brown.

Brown denied the appeal, saying Goodyear still hadn’t provided the required information on the invoices, and the company was expected to appeal Brown’s decision to the county commission at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I have some questions about whether someone at the Goodyear store knows more than we’ve been told,” Brown said Monday. “The tires we purchase for fire-rescue vehicles are always mounted, because we don’t have the equipment to mount and balance them, [but] the tires in question were all loose tires.

“Before we pay the bill, I need to be satisfied that there wasn’t some involvement by someone at the Goodyear store, either on the purchasing or mounting end.”

If detectives find that someone at Goodyear was involved in the alleged theft, then that person should be arrested and prosecuted, too. But even if someone at Goodyear was connected to the alleged crime, the county must accept the bulk of the blame.

If law-enforcement accounts are accurate, it was Burkeen, a high-ranking, long-serving county employee, who placed the orders and picked up the tires.

It was King, the head of a high-profile county agency, who signed off of the purchases without questioning numbers that didn’t make sense.

It was the county administration, along with the court clerk’s office, that trusted the wrong man, failing to notice anything was wrong and allowing these purchases to continue for at least three and a half years.

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