Hartford Employees Spend Thousands On Dining, Travel
Hartford Mayor, Officials' Spending Scrutinized
By JENNA CARLESSO and STEVEN GOODE
April 24, 2013
HARTFORD —— City officials spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel and dining over the past two years — including visits to high-end spots such as Max Downtown and The Hartford Club — a Courant review of city purchasing records show.
The expenditures, charged by Hartford employees to their city-issued credit cards, have come under increasing scrutiny as the city grapples with a $70 million budget deficit.
An audit of the cards requested by the city council is expected to be completed by the end of the month.
City officials say the expenditures are justified and budgeted — many are even covered by grants. All travel costs must be pre-approved and itemized receipts must be submitted for all purchases. Most travel involves several members of a department attending conferences across the country.
Mayor Pedro Segarra earlier this month ordered a freeze on the cards, except those of department heads and personnel in accounts payable, through the end of the fiscal year to help balance out the current budget.
But Kenneth Kennedy, an increasingly outspoken member of the council who introduced a proposal this month to ban the use of the cards, said he was dismayed after seeing several relatively expensive charges at area restaurants.
"People have got to have a better understanding of what they're responsible for," the Democratic councilman said. "There seems to be a casual attitude when you look through the expenses, particularly with the dining. It appears to be happening a little too often to always be for public purposes."
The Courant reviewed records for a handful of top city officials and department heads covering January 2011 to March 2013. They show a wide range of expenditures, including:
About $6,200 spent on meals by Segarra between January 2011 and December 2012.
More than $4,300 spent on dining by Segarra's chief of staff, Jared Kupiec, between February 2012 and February 2013
$9,700 in charges to The Hartford Club by city Treasurer Adam Cloud between June 2011 and March 2013
$6,300 on dining by Jose Colon-Rivas, the director of families, children, youth and recreation, between January 2011 and February 2013, including $3,000 at Costa Del Sol in Hartford restaurant and $764 at Tanino in Los Angeles.
Among the charges that sparked criticism is $707.21 on Kupiec's purchasing card at Max Downtown on New Year's Eve. Segarra said that charge stemmed from a dinner for eight people, including himself; his spouse; Kupiec; a female guest of Kupiec's; Chief Operating Officer Saundra Kee Borges; two members of the Hartford Police Department who were providing security for the mayor that evening; and an eighth person whom he could not recall. The meal was put on a city purchasing card because the group was working at First Night in Hartford, Segarra said.
All money spent on alcohol was placed on a separate bill and paid for by his spouse, he said.
The mayor said he attempted to pay half of the $707 dinner bill that night, but that restaurant staff made a mistake, and his contribution was never included. He said he has since reimbursed the finance department for half the bill.
Segarra said the dinner was not indicative of the way he normally conducts business.
"I know in my heart of hearts I'm a giver, not a taker," Segarra said. "Because of one incident people treat you as though you are absconding with people's money. It's so unfair. That's not the person I am and that's not how I do business."
The mayor said he has paid thousands of dollars of his own money toward dining for city events and meetings. He said he is considering getting rid of his city purchasing card to avoid any future misconceptions about how he spends money.
"Most of the time I take people out to eat I subsidize the city by using my personal cash in the thousands to pay for stuff that really should be paid for by the city," Segarra said.
Cloud's $9,700 worth of charges at The Hartford Club, he said, stemmed from membership fees and working breakfasts and lunches, including interviews for the selection of new asset managers.
Cloud also spent more than $4,800 on airfare, more than $5,100 on hotel stays and at least $2,500 on dining between June 2011 and March 2013. He said those charges were for several conferences that multiple people in his office attended.
All of the purchases on Cloud's card are covered by money from the pension commission's budget, he said, which is paid for by asset returns from the Municipal Employees Retirement Fund.
The city's internal audit commission began investigating use of the cards in March at the request of the city council.
About 185 employees, including members of the city's board of education, have purchasing cards, most of which have $3,000 yearly spending limits.
The limits for several higher-ranking officials were reduced in January after a review of the cards was conducted. Segarra's limit dropped from $30,000 to $5,000; Kupiec's dropped from $10,000 to $5,000; management, budget and grants Director Jose Sanchez's dropped from $5,000 to $3,000; limits for Fire Chief Edward Casares and Colon-Rivas were reduced from $30,000 to $5,000; and the credit limit for Raul Pino, director of health and human services, dropped from $30,000 to $10,000, according to city documents.
Maribel La Luz, Segarra's spokeswoman, stressed that the charges made by department heads cover expenses for the entire department, not just the managers.
For example, Colon-Rivas spent about $2,750 on airfare and about $9,000 on hotels between January 2011 and February 2013, according to documents.
La Luz said that many of the travel and hotel charges made by Colon-Rivas are covered by grants, including a $7,400 four-day trip to Los Angeles in February 2012. The trip was funded by a grant from the Hartford Foundation For Public Giving, documents show. The conference, on how early learning initiatives were evolving in Los Angeles and how they may be applicable to Hartford, was attended by 12 people being trained to be advocates for children.
Pino spent about $14,000 on airfare between February 2011 and January 2013and about $17,000 on hotel charges on work-related trips between February 2011 and February 2013. He also spent more than $6,500 on dining between February 2011 and March 2013.
One charge, for $1,867 at Barca Tapas LLC on Dec.12, covered the costs of a department Christmas party, La Luz said. About 200 people — including employees and their families — attended the party, she said. It was paid for with money from the department's donation fund, La Luz said, which was set up to support events held by health and human services for staff, families and students.
Pino's department relies on several grants to cover expenses, La Luz said, and many of the charges were for programs or initiatives funded by grants.
Most of the city purchasing cards have restrictions on what employees can buy, city officials said. Department heads and officials in the mayor's office have dining privileges, and may approve some charges for special occasions, La Luz said.
Purchases made by every city employee on the credit cards are reviewed twice a month, said Julio Molleda, the city's finance director. Accountants examine itemized receipts and invoices, and employees are required to reimburse the city for any unapproved purchases.
On April 5, Segarra ordered a freeze on all city purchasing cards, except those for department heads and personnel in accounts payable. The freeze will run through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Kennedy said the city should switch to a reimbursement system for the expenses, because people are less likely to spend money up front if they must wait to be paid back.
But city officials contend that the purchasing cards save money because they have a cash-back feature, and reimbursement checks cost about $7 each.
"Whether we're in good or bad times, I think you have an obligation as to how you spend public dollars," Kennedy said, "and given that we're in a bad situation — you'd think you would want to be very careful about what you spend. The attitude throughout the organization needs to be readjusted."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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