>Statements suggest public employees spent more than $3,000 on personal items using a city of Culver credit card
July 16, 2003 — More than $3,000 of personal items were purchased on a government credit card issued to Culver City Recorder Jeri Jones, a review of records obtained by The Pioneer suggests.
Analyzing 165 line items on 20 credit card statements dating back to July 2001, The Pioneer identified 40 unusual purchases totaling $3,160.80 that are not consistent with items necessary for city operations -- unless feature films, Scottish and Irish wear, Buick car parts, several hundred dollars in clothing, romance novels and horse tack can be construed as such.
Jones, 47, is the city's treasurer, budget officer, secretary and collection officer in addition to her role as city recorder. She declined to be interviewed Monday, citing direction from legal council because of a pending lawsuit.
The city of Culver began its own investigation into the use of credit cards after Eugenia Alire, a former city employee, reported their alleged misuse in April.
Alire, who was laid off on May 27, has since filed an ethics complaint, and intends to file a lawsuit claiming she was "discharged in retaliation for reporting financial irregularities within the City of Culver," according to a tort claim notice her attorney, Paul Speck, mailed to the city on June 19.
The Pioneer's independent findings are in direct contrast to the official investigation conducted by the city of Culver, which paid Jim Smith -- a quasi-reserve who does detective work for the Culver Police Department on a contractual basis -- $750 to review Alire's initial complaint.
After a 60-plus hour investigation, Smith concluded that 11 charges totaling $1,289 were made on Jones' card for personal items. Smith's 11-page report, released to The Pioneer last Wednesday, does not clarify the dates of the records he reviewed, or the specific purchases.
But the report apparently attempts to clear Jones of any wrongdoing, suggesting that she has consistently reviewed her credit card statements for outstanding personal charges. "[S]he would pay them [back] to the City of Culver by check or by having the amount deducted from her paycheck," Smith wrote in his report.
Purchases intensified before Christmas
The records reviewed by The Pioneer include every credit card statement during the past two fiscal years, excluding the months of February, March, May and June of 2003, which this newspaper so far has been unable to obtain.
The records show a consistent pattern of personal purchases over the past two years, intensifying last November when $670.45 in charges were split between clothing, bath products, Western wear and tack, and a company called Plow and Hearth.
December 2002 records show up to $702.07 in personal purchases. They include a $233.05 charge to a Buick engine parts company, $279.19 between three horse tack companies, $94.98 in romance novels, $45 to a Bend florist shop, $29.85 for a movie and a $20 charge at a pharmacy.
All told, an analysis of the 40 unusual purchases on the credit card during the past two fiscal years suggests the following:
- Sixteen charges were made between nine separate clothing companies, totaling $1,160.44.
- Four large purchases between two car parts companies, TA Performance Products and Summit Racing, totaled $635.
- Five purchases to companies specializing in horse tack supplies totaled $317.37.
- Two charges to Plow and Hearth, which specializes in "products for country living," according to its Web site, totaled $308.60.
- Five purchases for books totaled $208.85.
- Two purchases from a company called Feature Films for Families totaled $59.70.
- Other purchases included $156 from Bath & Body Works, $75.97 from the QVC shopping network, $166.92 from a Seaside motel, a $6.95 purchase through America Online, and $45 from the Bend florist and the $20 purchase at the pharmacy.
In reviewing these records, The Pioneer was unable to verify whether these purchases have been reimbursed -- as the city's official investigation claims were done in the case of the 11 personal purchases identified by Smith.
Two formal public records requests to inspect corresponding receipts, four additional monthly statements from 2003, payroll deduction information and the city's cash reimbursement journal have not yet been granted by the city of Culver.
Councilor `not going to let this drop'
City council member Anzie Adams said in a telephone interview Monday that she's "not going to let this drop until I find out what's going on."
Attempts to contact other city council members were unsuccessful. Messages left with Culver Mayor Dan Harnden and council member Thelma Krueger last week were not returned. An employee at Harnden's workplace said Monday he is in Florida on business.
The phone numbers of councilors Sam Clark and Raymond Hire could not be found in a local phone book.
Adams said documents that were the subject of the city's official investigation have not been made available to council members.
Elected officials and city employees also have been encouraged by legal counsel not to speak about the investigation because of the pending lawsuit, but Adams said Culver residents deserve an explanation.
"If I was a regular citizen, I would be asking questions too," Adams said. "And I think they deserve answers.
"We need to open it up and get to the bottom of it so everybody's satisfied."
At their May 19 meeting, the council members adopted a revision to the city's employee handbook prohibiting employees from continuing to make personal purchases on city credit cards.
Adams said no personal purchases ever were authorized by the city council. She said whether they were reimbursed does not excuse the way the credit card was used.
"People should know damn well that they can't purchase things on the city's credit card without permission," Adams said.
Three employees used Jones' card
Smith's investigation concluded that three employees made purchases on Jones' credit card.
Eugenia Alire, who filed the original complaint against Jones as "fraud," acknowledged to The Pioneer that she was responsible for some of the personal purchases. They include an $88.94 purchase from GAP, $166.92 spent on a Seaside motel room during the Hood-to-Coast Relay, and two purchases out of an Eastbay catalog totaling $48.88, Alire said.
"I made seven (purchases) tops within the three years I've been there," Alire said. "My complaint is that I don't see any of Jeri's payments being reimbursed back."
Smith's report also notes that Brenda Symons, a public works employee for Culver, used Jones' credit card to purchase medication -- a reference that most likely corresponds to a $20 purchase from a pharmacy on Dec. 9 of last year.
Alire, a city clerk who formerly worked under Jones before being laid off, said city employees didn't know using the credit card was inappropriate. She said that she reported the alleged misuse only in the context that Jones was not reimbursing her purchases.
"She was my supervisor and she said, `Yeah, that's fine as long as you pay it back," Alire alleges.
Large reimbursement came after complaint
A copy of a page out of the city's so-called cash reimbursement journal corresponding to the month of May obtained by The Pioneer shows an ambiguous $762.87 reimbursement made by Jones on either May 13 or 14 -- almost two months after Alire filed her complaint.
The May reimbursements -- the only page out of the journal so far obtained by The Pioneer -- also shows that on May 1 Jones reimbursed a $75.97 purchase and a $101.99 purchase. They correspond with a March 23 charge to QVC and a March 26 charge to Jessica London, respectively.
But Adams said the $762.87 Jones paid back in mid-May has not fully been explained, either by Jones or by Smith in his investigation.
"It eats on me when I'm not satisfied with something," Adams said. "I don't want to accuse Jeri and say she's lying or say she stole anything, but I would like her to come out with a clean bill of health and I don't think the investigation did that."