COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (CBS4) – Four Commerce City Council members say they will reimburse taxpayers for overpayments and improper cash advances they collected in 2010 and 2011 that were uncovered in a CBS4 investigation of council expense records.
“It’s not that council people are trying to steal from the city,” said Councilman Rene Bullock. “It’s an oversight.”
CBS4 found that in 2010 city council members attended an annual municipal government conference in Breckenridge from June 22-25. But records show the city paid for five nights of hotel rooms for the council members for the conference.
“If I did something and took something I shouldn’t have I will definitely give it back,” said Councilwoman Jadie Carson. After reviewing her records, Carson agreed to repay Commerce City taxpayers $203.78. She said it was an honest mistake.
Records showed the city also paid for extra hotel nights for Tracey Snyder, a veteran member of Commerce City Council.
“I will be looking at the things you mentioned and reimbursing for the things I find that are wrong,” Snyder said.
She has since agreed to repay the city $219.78 for improper payments.
Councilman Jim Benson also got an extra hotel night, courtesy of Commerce City taxpayers, but he said he would not reimburse anyone.
“I consider CML conferences an obligation, not a vacation,” Benson said. After days of lectures, networking and learning, Benson said, “I was worn out and stayed Friday night. I do not intend to pay the city for Friday night.”
The CBS4 probe found the overpayments extended beyond the 2010 conference. At the same conference in 2011, there were similar overpayments. That conference ended on June 25. But CBS4 found that several council members requested and received advance cash reimbursement for conference meals for June 26, long after the convention had ended. They are now returning those payments to the city.
In several cases CBS4 found Commerce City sending council members to conferences and the city paying in advance for special lunch events, usually around $40 apiece. But council members then received cash reimbursement for the lunches that the city had already paid for.
“I want to thank you for bringing these things to our attention,” Snyder said.
How could there be so many errors and overpayments to council members?
“I think it’s part of the policy discussions we need to have to be more careful,” Snyder said.
Carson explained she had never reconciled cash advance payments she received with actual bills and receipts.
Watch Part 2 of Brian Maass’ report in the video clip below:
But Commerce City Council members are defending other questionable travel expenses. Rene Bullock, who has spent about $10,000 this year on official travel, went to Vail this summer on June 20 for a convention that did not begin until the following day, June 21, with the first session at 2 p.m.
He billed the city for a cash reimbursement for breakfast, lunch and dinner on June 20, along with his hotel stay the night before the event — about $200.
In an initial conversation, Bullock told CBS4 he wanted to get to Vail the night before so he would be “fresh” for morning sessions. When he was reminded the conference did not begin until 2 p.m. the following day, he said he had misspoken and offered a different rationale.
“I went up to Vail on Monday because a summer storm was predicted and I did not want to drive following a late-night council meeting,” said Bullock.
But CBS4 then pointed out that Bullock’s hotel reservation had been made April 1, nearly three months before the conference, and well before anyone could have predicted a storm on a specific day in June.
Asked why he couldn’t have just talked to service industry workers in the four days he was going to be in Vail at the conference, Bullock said, “We had a conference going on, events I had to go to.”
Bullock was also provided a cash payment for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the day after the conference concluded and has agreed to repay $51 in overpayments.
The record review also found that Bullock was one of four council members who received $330 cash reimbursements for five straight days of breakfast, lunch and dinner for attending a conference in Denver.
Such “per diem” payments are typically paid for overnight, out-of-town travel. But Bullock, Benson, Dominick Moreno and Kathy Teter collected the cash reimbursements for attending the National League of Cities Conference at the Colorado Convention Center from Oct. 30, 2010 through Nov. 3, 2010. It was 7 miles from Commerce City.
They were not required to submit any meal receipts to verify they actually ate at restaurants for 15 straight meals.
“I was down there from 7 a.m. until midnight or 1 a.m.,” said Bullock. “I think it’s a justified expense.”
Moreno justified the billing saying, “I was down there the entire day and ate my meals in downtown Denver while the conference was going on.”
Commerce City Mayor Paul Natale, who attended the same conference, did not bill the city for any meals saying, “I didn’t think I deserved them because it was in town and I had access to get around as much as I would ordinarily. I wasn’t ‘out of town,’ ” said Natale. “It wasn’t different than any other day.”
Natale said he did not think it was right to have taxpayers pay for meals for an in-town conference since he would have had to fend for himself anyway.
“I couldn’t justify I; not in my mind,” said Natale.
Jason McEldowney, another Commerce City council member, was critical of his colleagues collecting per diem cash reimbursements for a conference seven miles away.
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for in-town per diem,” said McEldowney.
Moreno later changed his mind about the per diem payments.
“I want to let you know that I have reimbursed Commerce City for the full $330 I received for the 2010 NLC Conference … it was inappropriate to receive per diem for a conference so close to the city. As stated during our interview, I will look at revising our council travel policy to make sure this mistake does not happen again. I appreciate the role the media plays in holding elected officials accountable and appreciate the opportunity to correct the issue,” Moreno said.
Teter agreed what happened may have been inappropriate.
“However if the majority of surrounding cities do not practice this policy the same way Commerce City does, I feel we should change ours,” Teter said.
CBS4 found elected officials from other suburbs generally did not consider a trip to downtown Denver an out-of-town conference justifying cash reimbursements for meals.
— Lakewood sent five elected officials to the Denver conference. City spokesperson Stacie Oulton said the Mayor billed for $39 in mileage and $29.94 for two lunches and coffee. She said other council members submitted minimal meal expenses, like Councilman Tom Quinn, who asked for one $7.99 lunch reimbursement, far less than the $330 per council member in Commerce City.
— Glendale sent Mayor Larry Harte, who submitted no meal expenses for reimbursement.
— Boulder, some 27 miles from the Colorado Convention Center, sent five elected officials, who did not ask for or receive any meal reimbursements.
“City policy allows for payment of per diems only in cases where overnight travel is required,” said Boulder spokesperson Sarah Huntley.
— Westminster sent six elected officials. Two asked to be reimbursed for a total of $90.75 for meals for the conference.
— Littleton sent one council member who did not request any reimbursement for meals.
Michelle Halstead, Commerce City’s Communications Director, said the city council adopted some changes to its travel policy in October, cutting the amount each council member has for travel and eating, eliminating cash advance payments and personally charging council members who were absent from previously-committed events.
Halstead the changes were a result of ongoing discussions.