Prince George's Taxpayers Pick Up Officials' Personal Tabs

By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006

Prince George's County Council member David Harrington (D-Cheverly), needed a shirt for his pastor's funeral in 2003, so he bought one for $37.99 at a Temple Hills store called Uniforms & Lingerie Inc.

When he wanted a haircut, he got one for $21 at Hair Designers Plus in Hyattsville. And when he decided he wanted to get in shape, he bought a gym membership for $300 at the Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex in Landover.

Each time, taxpayers picked up the tab, according to county records.

Harrington is one of several Prince George's officials, including County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who have used county-issued credit cards to pay for personal expenses totaling thousands of dollars, violating county policy. Johnson, for example, charged taxpayers for a $236 stay at the Courtyard by Marriott in Jamaica, N.Y., when he was attending his father-in-law's funeral in 2004, records show.

Council Vice Chairman Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) charged taxpayers $637 in June 2004 for three nights at the Embassy Suites in Richmond, a stay she described as "personal."

County records show that none of those charges was repaid.

In other cases, officials repaid the county for personal charges, but only after months and sometimes more than a year. Harrington, for example, took 19 months to repay a $36 charge at an eye care center in December 2003, according to records.

"In theory, they're supposed to write a check and pay it back," said Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel). "But it seems like an odd way to do business. Why not use your own credit card and then you don't have to worry about writing a check to the government?"

The Washington Post reviewed billing statements and other documents covering credit-card use over the past four years for officials in Prince George's, where there has been a move to heighten scrutiny of public spending. Charges for council members between December 2002 and May 2006 totaled $196,300, mostly for business meals and travel, according to documents obtained under a public records request. Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) had the highest total: more than $61,000 over that period.

The county cardholder agreement, which officials sign when they receive the cards, states that they are "exclusively for authorized and lawful county business." It requires that an "inadvertent" charge placed on a card be repaid within 10 business days.

Records show not only that some officials have ignored the agreement but also that the county's oversight and record-keeping is haphazard.

It is impossible to know from the records what some of the charges are for, how many are personal and, of those, which have been repaid. Information from the county did not always match bank records. One personal charge, noted as being repaid in 2003, was for a trip that didn't take place until 2004. The county said another charge was for a meal, while the official who made it said it was for a workout at a health club.

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