Sun-sentinel, Sunday, August 17, 1997
U.S. to Florida: Return misspent citrus money

The Associated Press


TALLAHASSEE- Federal auditors claim Florida misused more than 1.4 million earmarked for citrus-fruit inspections, and they want it back.

Federal officials said the money should have been used to inspect fruit for quality and signs of decay or disease.

Instead, it was used to pay for state agriculture employees to serve orange juice to legislators and to work at the state fair; to give free space to community groups for meetings; and to count citrus trees for crop estimates. And the lion's share went to help fight citrus canker, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector general's report.

"We don't think what we did was an inappropriate use of state dollars," Agriculture Department Terry McElroy told The St. Petersburg Times.

But federal officicals maintain $1.44 million was spent improperly and they want it returned to a trust fund that pays for inspecting citrus fruit at packing houses and processing plants.

The fund is made up of more than $10 milion in fees paid by the citrus industry.

Robert Keeney, director of the USDA's fruit and vegetable division, has a different opinion.

"We certainly have an issue here that we disagree with the state on, and we'll be pursuing it with the state to try to get it resolved," he said.

Lawyers for the state and the federal government are discussing the issue.

In the audit, completed in the spring, the Inspector General's office said: Florida's agriculture department, with authorization from the governor and legislature, improperly transferred about $1.4 million to two programs- $1.2 million to help eradicate citrus canker and $206,741 to pay for a cirtus tree survey to estimate citrus production each year.

Another $11,457 went for salary and travel expenses, and $25,297 to cover operating losses for an auditorium at the Winter Haven fruit and vegetable offices, the Times reported.

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