ST. LUCIE COUNTY — A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation concluded that St. Lucie County's former parks and recreation director committed one count of felony grand theft when she spent thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on a wedding reception for two public officials.
However, the State Attorney's Office has decided not to pursue charges, citing insufficient proof to support a conviction.
County independent auditors last year determined the county, under the direction of Debra Brisson , spent approximately $20,030 on items for the May 28, 2011 wedding reception of Joe and Heather (Lueke) Smith at the county-owned Havert L. Fenn Center on Virginia Avenue.
Joe Smith is the St. Lucie County clerk of the circuit court. Heather Smith is a former assistant St. Lucie County attorney. She resigned in November amid the controversy. Joe Smith, a former St. Lucie County commissioner, is running for re-election this year.
According to an FDLE report, Brisson "deprived the county of money by knowingly and unlawfully using county funds to subsidize the Smith-Lueke wedding reception in violation of county policy and procedures."
The report states that Brisson purchased items for the wedding reception in the amount of $18,089 without the approval or authority of St. Lucie County.
"To be quite honest, I am in absolute shock right now," Brisson said of the grand theft determination when first reached by phone Wednesday. She declined to comment further until she had read the reports from the FDLE and State Attorney's Office.
Reached after she read the reports, Brisson said: "I am thankful to the State Attorney's Office for their unbiased and thorough review of the facts and for their determination that substantial evidence exists that I was acting in the interest of St. Lucie County and in accordance with supervisor's wishes and that I committed no crime. It was always my intent to add a variety of events to the Fenn Center to increase revenue and lessen its burden on the taxpayers of St. Lucie County."
The Smiths' attorney, Cynthia Angelos, said Wednesday she could not comment on behalf of her clients. The Smiths couldn't be reached.
In a June 7 memo to FDLE special agent Jeff Duncan, Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans declined FDLE's request for the state to issue an arrest warrant on Brisson. Evans said FDLE's investigation "revealed scant, if any, evidence that Ms. Brisson had the criminal intent to commit theft."
Evans said for the state to prove theft, it would have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Brisson knowingly and unlawfully obtained or used the property of St. Lucie County and did so with intent to deprive St. Lucie County of its right to the property or any benefit from it.
"Additionally, there is no Florida statute that criminalizes poor business decisions," Evans wrote. "If the Fenn Center emerges as a popular venue for high-end weddings, Ms. Brisson may be hailed as a visionary. If the items purchased for the Smith-Lueke wedding are never again rented, the purchases will be regarded as one more government-sponsored boondoggle. Governmental mismanagement, however distasteful, is not a crime without proof of criminal intent."
Brisson resigned in October in lieu of being fired by County Administrator Faye Outlaw .
Allegations of grand theft and fraud stemmed from a Sept. 23 letter that former Parks, Recreation and Facilities executive assistant Carol Strobert wrote to Outlaw in which she accused Brisson of misusing $30,000 of taxpayer money to pay for the Smith's wedding reception.
Brisson purchased numerous items for the reception at no cost to the Smiths, including live trees, chair covers, table skirts, chandeliers, water goblets, LED lights, glass ornaments, acrylic beads and satin fabric. The Smiths paid $3,133 for a reception worth approximately $20,000.
That figure does not include $17,500 for two county-ordered audits of the reception expenses. So, the total cost to St. Lucie County taxpayers was at least $37,500.
The county maintained it was using the Smith wedding reception to showcase the Fenn Center as a wedding reception venue to develop additional revenue. Brisson claimed some of the equipment she purchased could be used for other weddings in the future. At the time of the reception, according to Outlaw and Assistant County Administrator Lee Ann Lowery, there were no rules or policies for renting the facility for wedding receptions. The county has since implemented new policies.
County spokesman Erick Gill said Wednesday that Outlaw did not wish to comment on conclusions reached by the FDLE and State Attorney's Office, because she had not had time to review the entire reports.
While the State Attorney's Office report acknowledges it can't prove criminal intent, the FDLE report has revealing testimony from employees about events that occurred after information of the reception became public.
Crissy Elliot, a supervisor in