10 News Investigators: Questions surface about hurricane pay outs in Hardee County

12:18 AM, Jun 28, 2013   |    comments
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Wauchula, Florida --When Hurricane Charley unleashed its fury on Florida in 2004, it left a trail of damaged homes and businesses in its wake.

After the storm, cities and counties lined up with insurance claims. Hardee County was one of them. Some county officials claimed the Hardee County Civic Center in Wauchula had taken a beating in the storm.

But Hardee County Commissioner Grady Johnson doesn't buy it.

We met Johnson at the Civic Center and asked what kind of damage there was to the building.

"It appears to me very little," Johnson told us.

Commissioner Johnson, a retired deputy sheriff, says the county received big dollars to fix up the alleged storm damage, and he wants to know where all that money went. 

"It appears to me there has been more than a million paid out on this building," he said.

But if you look at a picture of the civic center the day after Charley hit, it doesn't look much different from the way it looks now.

Even the water damage on the inside seems minimal, especially when you consider it has a terrazzo floors, but the bill for emergency drying came to nearly $577,000.

Sitting in his home Johnson, went through a stack of bills from vendors who did work in Hardee County after Charley hit. He picked up the Civic center bill and, in his down-home manner, said, "When I first seen that, it took my breath away. Half a million dollars to remove water from a concrete building which you have seen, [that has] terrazzo floors."

And it's not just the Civic Center. Johnson is also upset about the figures he has seen for county-owned Resthaven Nursing Home.

We went to the nursing home east of Wauchula and talked about more than a million dollars being spent at the facility. We asked Johnson if he believed that was possible, and he emphatically said, "No sir, no sir!"

Wendell Cotton is on the board of directors of Resthaven. He says the building is 40-years-old and it doesn't look like hundreds of thousands were spent on this building just nine years ago.

"When you hear they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars out here what do you think?" we asked him. 

"I think it is a joke."

Johnson wants to know where the money has been going.

"Where's the money at? What happened to it, because it certainly didn't go into this building and that building over there.

Nine years after Charley, FEMA has still not closed this file. The Agency discovered "conflicts on damage description, scope of work and cost estimates."

We wanted to get some answers, so we turned to Doug Knight, the county's point person for repairs.

When Knight turned down our request to sit down and talk about the bills, we caught up with him in downtown Wauchula. Again though, he refused to answer questions, and curtly told us to, "Pull the file" before he got into his truck and drove away.

While Knight refused to answer our questions, County Manager Lex Albritton, who was Knight's boss after the storm, told us he is convinced the millions of dollars of repairs were all done.

"It's all as documented as it can be documented. I can't make you believe it," Albritton said.

But through scathing letters, emails and comments at public meetings from then Hardee County Clerk of Court, Hugh Bradley, serious questions are raised.

Bradley claims that Albritton and his hired gun Doug Knight:

  • Lied about whether the people who did the repairs were approved to do it,  
  • Broke the law when they authorized the payout of the insurance money without going through the clerk of court and
  • May have paid some vendors twice for the same work.  

The Clerk, who is now retired, battled with County Manager Albritton over the way the money was spent at a county meeting a year ago.  

"People truly want integrity, and they want  honesty, and they want to know there are not a few in position that are trying to- for whatever reason- divert a million dollars," Bradley said at the meeting.

But his comment received an angry response from Albritton.

"The belief that the money is going to some shell company that then divided it, and turned it back to the employee and myself, is pure bull."

We asked Albritton about Bradley's accusations when we meet with him, and the county manger told us," It's true. It's not accounted for in his accounting records; that doesn't mean it's not accounted for."

Commissioner Johnson, the retired deputy, isn't satisfied. He wants a federal investigation into where the money went.

"The evidence is so overwhelming that there is something seriously wrong involving a lot of money," said Johnson.

While Knight wouldn't give us an interview, he sent us this statement:

"I do not believe the Clerk of Court, Hugh Bradley had the competency to grasp the claims process for the loss of Hurricane Charley. I do not believe the Clerk of Court, Hugh Bradley had the competency to handle the documentation for Hurricane Charley. I do not believe the Clerk of Court, Hugh Bradley had the competency to handle monetary appropriations for Hurricane Charley. As for me, I will stick behind my insurance training, credentials, my continuing education, my construction experience and my MBA."  

Bradley who is retired and traveling out of state, couldn't be reached, but it's worth noting he spent 15 years as the Chief Financial Officer of Hardee County, and he is the only one that state law says should be handling the money and pay outs...not the County Manager nor his hired gun Doug Knight.

Follow 10 News Reporter Mike Deeson on twitter @MikeDeeson

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