UPDATED: Credit where due
Pasadena city officials eat and travel well, credit card receipts reveal
Without providing names or account numbers, city financial records indicate Pasadena officials have spent more than $2.3 million on credit card purchases since January.
In some departments, eating and traveling accounted for a good portion of the total expenses incurred. And the head of one department — the only one whose records were not initially released by the city upon a state Public Records Act request by the Pasadena Weekly — was about to have her credit privileges revoked over questionable purchases before the person in charge of monitoring those expenses was laid off.
It was first reported by the Weekly that city officials spent $2 million. But after including figures contained in documents received past deadline Wednesday, the total stands at $2,364,629.
Of the city departments examined, at least $46,876 was spent on meals and other food-related costs.
“They need to stop eating on the city’s dime, especially when the city is going through difficult financial times,” said city watchdog Egerton Forster. “There is no time for that. If the city is going through financial difficulties, then they need to make some adjustments. They can’t be firing employees and spending like this.”
In the City Manager’s Office, for instance, $13,237 of the $38,725 charged to the cards, or nearly 30 percent, was spent on food food-related services. Travel — including two rooms at $72.80 each for a Tuesday night at Harrah’s in Las Vegas and two rooms at the Miramontes Resort and Spa in tony Indian Wells on Feb. 2 at a cost of $261.42 apiece — accounted for another 13 percent, or nearly $5,000 of that department’s total credit card purchases.
And now, with the layoff of former Management Analyst Jean Luter, the sole person charged with monitoring credit card buying among the more than 500 employees in possession of a city credit card, it appears there will be even fewer controls in place to ensure taxpayer-backed purchases are justified.
The records, provided to the paper Monday afternoon, reveal only the dates of the purchases, the amounts spent and the names of the vendors, or abbreviations of the names of the companies doing businesses with city’s 16 departments and the City Council. While the records show the department responsible for purchases, they do not list the identities of the buyers themselves.
The same applies in the case of the City Council; the records provide no names of people, only those of places, as well as dates and the amounts spent. From that information, however, it’s clear council members have a hankering for eating out, with 30 percent, or $3,202 of the $10,759 spent by the mayor and the seven council members since January devoted to restaurant tabs.
When it came to traveling, council members did their fair share, putting $2,893 on city-paid cards, or just more 25 percent of the group’s total spending, on travel, including fares, hotel room costs, conference costs, parking fees and taxi service.
“Everybody who gets a credit card has a run-through with purchasing departments and the dos and don’ts of the credit cards,” said City Manager Michael Beck. “The one thing that we do have a lot of here is commission meetings, and they usually meet in the early evenings, so they purchase food. [The] Human Resources [Department] does a lot of panels, so they have food. This is a community with a lot of high expectations for involvement, so folks [who work long hours] are stretched pretty thin.”
By far the biggest spender in the city between late December and the end of May was the Public Works Department, which amassed a total of $633,717.66 in credit card debt, followed by the Water and Power Department, which accounted for a total of $536,336.20 in purchases, $37,613 of which was spent on travel, booked mostly through Southwest Airlines, and $6,700 spent on food.
Next was the Police Department, with $203,996.25 in credit purchases, and the Fire Department coming in not far behind with $134,379.25 in credit card spending.
The lightest spender was the City Attorney’s Office, which turned in just more than $2,000 in credit card receipts, mostly in traveling expenses. The Information Technology Department spent none of its $148,370.57 in credit card purchases on food or travel, the documents show.
“Since the city is so concerned about the budget deficit, and has laid off a lot of people because of that, I find it disheartening that department heads are spending like we have a surplus,” said Forster. Forster spoke at the council’s Feb. 6 meeting, expressing concern about layoffs and the city’s use of costly consultants to temporarily perform the duties of mid- to top-level management positions vacated by retirements or layoffs.
Although it is not considered a department, Pasadena officials provided the collective credit card history of the City Council. However, officials initially failed to deliver any information about the city Human Services and Recreation Department, which has created considerable controversy over the use of the card by recently hired department head Mercy Santoro.
According to documents obtained independently by this newspaper, between last June and March, a credit card issued by the city to Santoro was used to cover $2,872 worth of meals at some of the finest restaurants in Old Pasadena, two sets of airline tickets and parking and valet parking charges, also incurred in Old Pasadena, just a few blocks from City Hall.
Luter raised red flags over a number of Santoro’s purchases and even recommended that the card be suspended, but it was not. Instead, Luter was laid off, along with 18 other mid-level managers in a round of expense-cutting measures aimed at balancing the city’s $740-million budget. Also laid off at that time in mid-February was the city’s auditor, George Owen.
“It was very concerning,” said Luter, who worked for the city for 31 years and routinely discontinued credit cards use by city workers over questionable purchases, of Santoro’s purchases. She said she often worked with police on some of those matters. “I did a comparison with all the directors, and [Santoro’s] spending outnumbered all of the other department heads. I recommended the card be suspended, because the charges were irresponsible, but it was not,” Luter said.
Santoro has not responded to numerous requests for comment on this story.
Santoro took over the position, which pays a yearly salary of between $130,000 and $160,000, last May and received the card around that time. In Pasadena, Santoro is in charge of 57 employees and a $4.1-million annual budget. Prior to that, Santoro worked as the human services director in the city of Claremont.
Well over half of the charges on her MasterCard — 29 of 42 — were for meals in high-end restaurants, including Mi Piace, Green Street Restaurant and Houston’s. In mid-August, records show multiple meals totaling hundreds of dollars were charged to the card. On Aug. 2, two charges totaling $1,079.24 — one for $417.76 and another for $661.49, both charged to Lands End Business Outfitters and Office Depot — were made. The city buys T-shirts with the city name and logo from Lands End.
On Aug. 17, Santoro signed off on a $48.72 meal at McCormack & Schmick’s, located directly across the street from City Hall and known as a favorite place of city employees. The card was later used the same day at the Euro Pane Bakery, where Santoro spent $24.36.
On the following day, the card was again used at two high-end local restaurants — a $39.30 meal at Mi Piace in Old Pasadena and a $67.30 meal at El Cholo’s on South Fair Oaks Avenue. Similar spending patterns also occurred in October at McCormick & Schmick’s and California Pizza Kitchen. On Nov. 18 — a Friday during which employees were not working — $135 was charged to the card for an item listed only as “California Parks and Recreation.”
Santoro purchased Southwest Airlines tickets on Feb 8 and Feb. 21, with those charges, which do not show destinations, coming to a total of $482.20. The card was also used to pay $36 in parking fees.
Luter said she reported what she considered questionable charges to her direct supervisor, Purchasing Card Administrator Larry Hammond, who answers to Director of Finance Andrew Green. Luter said she usually received a response after questioning charges, but this time she did not receive any response from either Hammond or Green.
Since her layoff in February, the city has moved to a system which places monitoring responsibilities on the individual heads of each department.
Hammond said Luter was “all over everything” when it came to city credit card spending. Now, “We will be doing quarterly audits, but the department heads have the primary responsibility of monitoring the cards,” Hammond told the Weekly.
“The food charges are pretty common. What we do allow is if a person is authorized and is hosting a lunch … they can do that. A lot of that is for events, meetings in the office. It is relatively common. You see which restaurants are popular in City Hall. Loverbirds is a popular place to have meetings, and Louise’s is a popular place also.”
For the record, Luter was contacted by this newspaper, not vice versa. Further, Luter said she does not believe her attempts to blow the whistle on what she believes was inappropriate use of the card played a role in her termination.
City spokesman William Boyer said nothing inappropriate occurred with the use of Santoro’s card and that every expense checked out as legitimate.
“As with most credit cards, the transaction date and the posting dates are not always in sync,” Boyer told the Weekly. “There are no triple restaurant lunches on the same day. There were no back-to-back lunches at PF Chiang’s, McCormick & Schmick's and Green Street [Restaurant]. The lunches did occur, but they were on separate dates.”
Boyer added that the airline tickets purchased by Santoro were used to attend conferences, adding “The prices were pretty reasonable.” He said Santoro used the card to pay for parking because she had not yet received her employee parking placard, which allows her to park for free while conducting city business.
Luter was regarded as highly conscientious when it came to employees credit card use and even refused to issue a card to Police Chief Phillip Sanchez when he was hired in 2010 until he met with her to discuss the rules of using the card.
“She was adamant that he would not receive his card until she explained the rules to him face to face and not over the phone,” said Lt. Phlunte Riddle. “She has contacted our Finance Department several times to confirm proper use of the card over lunches and certain charges.”
In the past five years, Luter’s monitoring has led to the termination of two employees, who were let go after it was discovered they had used the cards for personal business.
Forster called the spending by city department heads outrageous, especially now, as city leaders are cutting programs and laying off people.
“That means they are out of touch with reality, or they have a secret pot of gold somewhere we don’t know of,” he said.