Fenn Center case: FDLE says grand theft committed, State Attorney decides not to pursue charges

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

the county's Parks and Recreation Department who has worked at the Fenn Center for more than three years and manages the center's financial records and monies paid to the center for rentals and programs, told FDLE investigators the county had no plans to use the equipment Brisson purchased for the Smith reception for future wedding receptions.

"Elliot stated that the average person off the street would have received a quote for a rental and Lueke should have known that she was getting the deal of a lifetime," the report states.

Elliot told investigators that when the cost of the wedding reception was disclosed to the newspaper, "there was a lot of scrambling and Brisson wanted to 'cover her tracks' and start marketing the Fenn Center. Elliot stated that all of the new postcards, price lists and flyers to promote the Fenn Center were a 'cover-up' to hide the expenses for the Lueke wedding reception," the report states.

Joe Smith told investigators he contacted other wedding reception venues, including the Port St. Lucie Civic Center, the Tradition Town Center and the PGA Learning Center, but they were either unavailable on the desired date or too expensive. That's when the Smiths discussed with Brisson having their wedding reception at the Fenn Center.

"The Smiths offered Brisson to do 'whatever you want to do' and that the Fenn Center would be in charge of the decorations," the FDLE report states.

Joe Smith was a county commissioner when the County Commission established rental pricing for the Fenn Center. However, he has said he did not know how much the county was spending on his reception.

Joe Smith told FDLE investigators that on the day of his wedding reception he and his wife thanked Brisson for the appearance of the rooms with the decorations and Brisson's reply was, "This is my gift from me to you," the report states.

When investigators met with Lowery, Brisson's direct boss, she said the Smith-Lueke wedding was "very extravagant" and "that there was a lot of money spent to include the man hours needed to host the wedding," according to the report.

"Lowery stated that she was under the understanding that Joe Smith and Heather Lueke had rented the Fenn Center as 'a box' and that Smith and Lueke were purchasing their own supplies and materials."

Evans noted in his report that Cathy Townsend, who owns a catering business and had provided catering services for Fenn Center events, said she discussed the Smith wedding reception with Brisson before the event. She said Brisson said she had purchased champagne glasses, plate chargers, sashes and chair covers because she wanted to showcase the Smith-Lueke wedding reception and demonstrate the Fenn Center could be used for wedding reception events.

"This statement of intent, combined with the evidence that Ms. Brisson did not profit from the wedding, is consistent with a reasonable hypothesis of innocence in that Brisson believed she was acting in accordance with her lawful employment," Evans wrote.

Evans said the decision not to criminally prosecute Brisson does not leave St. Lucie County taxpayers without a remedy.

"Ms. Brisson has apparently been fired or forced to resign, Assistant County Attorney Heather Lueke-Smith has resigned, the county has vowed to establish proper rental procedures at the Fenn Center and elected officials will be vetted in November," Evans wrote.

THE WEDDING RECEPTION

St. Lucie County Clerk of the Circuit Court Joe Smith and former St. Lucie County Assistant County Attorney Heather (Lueke) Smith had their May 28, 2011 wedding reception at the Havert L. Fenn Center on Virginia Avenue in Fort Pierce.

Former Parks, Recreation and Facilities executive assistant Carol Strobert alleged in a Sept. 23 letter to County Administrator Faye Outlaw that former parks and recreation director Debra Brisson misused $30,000 of taxpayer money on the reception.

Brisson resigned Oct. 12 amid the allegations.

An investigation by the county's external auditor Berger, Toombs, Elam, Gaines & Frank found the county spent $20,030 and not $30,000 on the Smith wedding reception. The money was spent on items such as fabric, glassware and lighting.

After audit results, County Commissioner Tod Mowery recommended Outlaw ask the State Attorney's Office to conduct an investigation for a second opinion to see if there was any criminal wrongdoing.

Stuart Attorney Joe Gufford, hired to represent former Fenn Center Coordinator Anthony Allen, in October contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement office in Orlando, requesting it investigate the Smith wedding reception expenses for possible criminal activity.

FDLE in May sent a packet of its findings and evidence to the State Attorney's Office and asks it to issue a warrant for Brisson's arrest on a charge of grand theft.

In a June 7 memo to an FDLE special agent, Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans declines to pursue charges citing insufficient proof to support a conviction.

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