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City Employee Spending In Spotlight After Questionable Charges Revealed

(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Mireya Villarreal
A native Texan, Mireya was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley....
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FORT WORTH (CBS 11 NEWS) – Clothes, coffee and cocktails — the CBS 11 I-Team uncovered how some Fort Worth city employees are using your tax dollars to buy stuff like that, even though it’s supposed to be against the rules.

Questionable credit card spending, pin-pointed by I-Team Investigator Mireya Villarreal, now has Fort Worth’s finance department taking a closer look at certain employees and city policies.

Fort Worth has more than 600 employees carrying city-issued credit cards. Since July, the I-Team has been reviewing monthly statements, finding things like frequent trips to the 7-11, I-Tunes purchases, and dry cleaning bills.

But the problem isn’t just with the purchases; it’s with the fact that very few departments really know what they can or can’t use their cards for. That issue can leave the city open to abuse at a time when budgets are just skin and bones.

This year, Fort Worth faced a $50 million shortfall. The city council agreed to close that gap by reducing fire programs, cutting vacant police positions and trimming the city’s road maintenance budget.

“It’s tough. It’s always hard to do a budget that’s going to involve cutting anything,” Mayor Betsy Price told us back in September before the budget was approved.

Since every department was facing budget cuts this year, the CBS 11 I-Team decided to take a closer look at the city’s credit card spending from June 2012 through August 2013. Each month thousands of dollars are spent by employees at all levels. Purchases often include things like office supplies or parts for vehicle maintenance. But a closer look at the statements also revealed dozens of questionable purchases.

Some of those purchases included the following:

December 2012:
A Library IT Manager used her city-issued credit card to buy things from Steinmart, Macy’s and Finish Line. She claims she accidentally used her credit card three times, racking up $295.99 in charges. She paid back the city only after the purchasing department caught the mistake.

June 2013:
The Fort Worth Library Director charged $111.10 for dinner at Ellerbe Fine Foods. She says she was meeting with District 8 Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray for lunch to discuss a reading project. But receipts the I-Team got a hold of show that “working lunch” was actually at 8:25pm.

October 2012:
A Senior Librarian used her credit card at Queen’s Nails, charging $75 to get her nails done. She was later forced to pay it back.

November 2012, December 2012, March 2013, May 2013, June 2013, March 2013:
Your tax dollars also pay to track Mayor Betsy Price’s fitness at $11.99 a pop. The internet-based program they use, http://www.mapmyfitness.com, maps her city-backed bike rides, counts calories and keeps track of her food intake. And although this isn’t a normal expense that fits the city’s guidelines for credit-card use, the city manager’s office approves it because the bike rides are part of the mayor’s health initiative.

May 2013:
Meacham’s Airport Manager charges $61.61 at Los Vaqueros, a Mexican food restaurant. He says he was meeting a “business lunch to discuss aviation legal needs”, despite the City of Fort Worth employing a team of lawyers available to him.

February 2013:
One of the Mayor’s security officers purchases a Starbucks coffee for $6.50. The Mayor’s office tells us the purchase was a mistake and they plan to pay back the city.

When a questionable purchase comes up, Fort Worth’s Purchasing Department will often red-flag the purchase and ask the employee for an explanation. However, we uncovered, even when purchases are red-flagged, there are few instances where a credit card is taken away. In fact, Fort Worth’s Financial Department, headed up by Director Jesus Chapa, claims they have no documentation of a credit card being removed from an employee in the last two years. [This claim was made after CBS 11 filed an open records request and was told there were no responsive documents that discuss card removal.]

“Basically, the statements read like a personal credit card statement,” Ross Kecseg said. “And it’s pretty clear to see that not only are they spending money on things that are for personal use, clearly for personal use, but it’s habitual.”

Ross Kecseg is with Empower Texans, a non-profit organization that acts as a government watchdog.

Kecseg reviewed the data we uncovered and the city’s credit card use policy. His biggest concern is with the lack oversight and accountability.

“I question whether or not these cards are even appropriate in the first place. I mean, why do 600 city employees need a credit card in their name and in the name of the city for purchases. It just doesn’t make any sense,” Kecseg added.

Kecseg is also concerned about Fort Worth Police Department’s bar tab. Receipts the I-Team discovered show $362 spent this past May on top shelf liquor like Crown Royal and Makers Mark. In all, at least 14 bottles were purchased that month.

In November 2012, the police department purchased 20 bottles of liquor, including two Smirnoff vodka liter bottles, three Jack Daniels liter bottles, nine Crown Royal liter bottles, and six other smaller bottles of alcohol. The total cost to you was $618.18. That’s on top of the $265 purchase they made just a few months earlier in July 2012.

“I think 20 bottles could easily be a wedding, a political function, maybe even a sporting event,” Kevin Boyer explained.

Boyer runs ABC Bartending School in Fort Worth. He teaches up-and-coming bartenders how to pour up cocktails responsibly.

“At a liter of alcohol, you’re looking at a 1.5 or 1 and a half ounce pour, about 22.5 drinks per liter bottle,” Boyer added.

Twenty-two drinks multiplied by fourteen liter bottles purchased by the police department means you can make at least 308 drinks. That’s not including the six other smaller bottles of booze purchased in November.

So, who’s drinking all of that?

Fort Worth Police wouldn’t go on camera with us, only saying the alcohol is used for DWI training sessions for cadets, which, they believe, justifies the alcohol purchases.

“I don’t see any reason why, you know, $200 or 300 dollars’ worth of alcohol, Jack Daniels, Crown Royal, all that stuff, needs to be purchased over a six month period,” Kecseg argued. “It’s so egregious to me; it’s clearly on face, an improper use of funds.”

  • The CBS 11 I-Team had other contact with City of Fort Worth officials. Read some of that information and correspondence below.

City of Fort Worth – Official Statement Regarding Credit Card Purchases:

Investigative Reporter Mireya Villarreal asked on numerous occasions to speak with Fort Worth’s Financial Director or someone in the City Manager’s office; and on numerous occasions she was denied.

Bill Begley, Fort Worth’s Media Coordinator, sent the following statement regarding the issues uncovered by the I-Team:

The City of Fort Worth is committed to fiscal policies that respect the value of the tax dollars it is entrusted with. It is why we have a number of policies in place to make sure those funds are used in the most responsible way possible. This includes keeping a close eye on every dollar spent, among those the expenses that come with conducting the business of the city on a daily basis. Each department is responsible for maintaining a fiscally responsible budget, and ensuring any expense occurred is in line with the policies in place. When expenditures possibly fall outside of those parameters, we quickly evaluate and investigate these costs and, if necessary, take corrective actions. While the expenditures in question fall within those strict guidelines, in an effort to maintain that public trust, we are reviewing the purchasing policies to make certain that they reflect the importance of this responsibility.”

The city also provided their guidelines for credit card purchases. [Click to read the City of Fort Worth Finance Department information]

Just a few days after CBS 11’s Mireya Villarreal began requesting interviews with the city, Financial Director Jesus Chapa sent out a memo to all departments outline the do’s and don’ts of using their credit cards. [Click to read the miscellaneous expense payments memo]
Sources within the city tell us, it was a clarification they had never seen or heard of before.

Police Clarify Purchases:

Although the police department refused to speak with us on camera, they did send CBS 11 more information regarding their alcohol purchases.

In an email, Sergeant Kelly Peel of the Fort Worth Police Department denied any excessive purchases and provided the following analysis:

We have an average of 50 drinkers per training session (day), 2 sessions (days) per class. This training utilizes about 16 to 20 one liter bottles of alcohol, depending on the size of the class. They use about 1.5 to 2 ounces of alcohol per drink and each drinker may get 2-4 drinks on average depending on their weight. If you have 50 drinkers times avg. 6 ounces of alcohol that equals 300 ounces or approximately 8-10 liter bottles per training day or 16-20 for the two day total of training. This is a very closely monitored process and these dates should coincide with the purchases.”

However, according to the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission, one standard mixed drink consists of 1.5 ounces liquor.

We also asked the department why certain top-shelf brands of alcohol were being purchased, instead of using well-brands. He explained:
“In the past, a lower quality alcohol was used, but this resulted in more volunteers getting ill than in prior workshops. Using higher quality alcohol reduces the instances of illness in the volunteers. The alcohol purchased is used only for this specific DWI training. Once the training session is complete, the alcohol is inventoried and secured in a vault until the next DWI training workshop.”

Despite the department’s claim that they use any additional alcohol at their next workshop, the CBS 11 I-Team uncovered that may not be the case. The department’s receipts show in November 2012, 20 bottles were purchased for their November Workshop. But in May 2013 an additional 14 bottles were purchased for their May Workshop.

Investigative Reporter Mireya Villarreal has asked the city for attendance records at each of those workshops; however, has not received the information yet.

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