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.
And in one case, to prove a council member had repaid a charge to renew his driver's license, the council administrator's office produced a photocopy of a $20 bill and a $1 bill.
Johnson said he has no jurisdiction over council members but has reminded his staff in writing not to use the cards for personal items. "We are very firm that they do not use credit cards in that way," he said.
Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie), the only council member who declined to have a county-issued credit card, said oversight should be shifted to the county auditor.
"It's hard for the [council] administrator to police them, because he works for them," said Peters, who recently won election to the Maryland Senate.Business, Broadly Defined
In many cases, officials argued that their charges met the definition of county business.
Exum, for example, billed the county $150 for a framed poster she bought at a silent auction in New York in April 2003. She said she did not reimburse the county because the poster is hanging in her office. She also charged the county $520 in June 2004 for a golf outing at the Links at Lighthouse Sound in Ocean City during a conference. She said she golfed with other council members, including Hendershot.
"I've never played there with Camille," he said.
Hendershot charged the county several hundred dollars for airport parking while he was on trips that were not county-related, records show.
"Even if I was away on something other than county business, I'm parking the county vehicle," he said. "It's not inappropriate for the county to cover that charge."
On a business trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2003, Johnson spent $29 for a dinner at Hooters. "Hooters is a legitimate restaurant," he said. "That was my first and only time there."
When Iris Boswell, Johnson's deputy chief administrative officer for finance, went to a Mitchellville dermatologist last year, she put the $25 co-pay on her county-issued credit card. Boswell said she reimbursed the county but declined to provide proof.
"That was just a mistake of whipping out the wrong card," Boswell said. "It's not appropriate at all."
The records document how often county officials travel to desirable locations. At least five people -- council members, Johnson and some of his appointees -- traveled this year to Las Vegas for an annual convention to woo shopping center developers, at a total cost of more than $5,700.
Seven officials went to a National Association of Counties conference in Honolulu last year. Several, including Johnson and Harrington, extended their stays for up to four days using their county-issued cards, records show. Four rented cars at a total cost of $2,678.
Council member Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) said he decided against the trip because "it didn't pass the feel test. . . . Honolulu. Vacation place. The appearance is that it's a lot of fun."
When the same conference was held in Milwaukee three years ago, no council members attended, according to a council spokeswoman.Jack B. Johnson
As county executive, Johnson has sometimes traveled at hefty expense to taxpayers.
In December 2005, he flew business class to Senegal, at a cost of $6,003, for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for homes built by a Prince George's developer.
"I always fly business class or first class," Johnson said. "I think the people of Prince George's County expect me to. I don't think they expect me to be riding in a seat with four across and I'm in the middle."
When he traveled to Las Vegas last year for the shopping center convention, he stayed at the luxurious Bellagio Hotel while his staff stayed at cheaper hotels, records show. This year, Johnson flew first class and stayed at the Wynn, one of the most expensive hotels in Las Vegas.
On two trips in the past year to Charleston, S.C., where Johnson's mother lived until her death last month, he charged a total of $457 in rental car and gas expenses, records show. County Attorney David Whitacre said Johnson paid back the charges but declined to produce proof. Whitacre also said Johnson's travel receipts have been destroyed because county rules do not require that they be retained.
"There is no documentation in the possession of Prince George's County . . . for Mr. Johnson's travel expenses," Whitacre wrote. Johnson said in a follow-up phone message that he had paid back personal charges.David Harrington
Harrington said he thought nothing of shopping at Uniforms & Lingerie when he needed a clergyman's shirt for his pastor's funeral.
"I didn't even know it was a lingerie place," said Harrington, who is a nondenominational minister. "In the back, you could see mannequins wearing the clergy shirt."
He said he did not have cash to buy the shirt and was told the store was going out of business that day. So he pulled out his county-issued credit card and billed it to taxpayers.
"I said, 'Let me do this this one time,' " he recalled. "It was just a last-minute thing. It wasn't tawdry or anything."
Since January 2003, Harrington has charged more than $27,200 to his county-issued credit card, including dry cleaning, video rentals and a round-trip airline ticket for his son, Stephen, to fly home from Morehouse College in Atlanta last year for Thanksgiving.
Around that time, Harrington charged a second ticket to the county for his son to come home again.
"I got a call from my son saying 'Hey, Dad, where's my plane ticket?' I said 'oops' and I get on the Internet and get his ticket," Harrington said. "I didn't have my other credit card on me."
County officials said Harrington repaid the plane tickets, but they did not provide receipts or canceled checks.
Harrington has not repaid $1,200 he charged in January 2005 for four six-month gym memberships at the county's Sports & Learning Complex for himself and three staff members.
"In lieu of bonuses, I gave them the memberships," he said.
He also has not reimbursed the county for a $62.89 prescription drug charge from Kaiser Permanente in Annapolis last April.
"The charge was more than the money I had on me," he said. "I don't want to give the impression that I'm using the card willy-nilly. I take the taxes of people very, very seriously."Camille Exum
Exum does not like small planes, so when she attended a government conference in Monterey, Calif., in June 2005, she flew into San Francisco. After an overnight stay at a Westin hotel that cost $718 for herself and an aide, she rented a chauffeur-driven limousine for $375 to take them and another council member to the conference, a two-hour trip.
"Yes, we took it to Monterey, and we caught a ride back with some of the [conference] folks," she said. A rental car, she said, "was just too small."
Over the Labor Day weekend in 2004, Exum flew to Jamaica to attend a friend's wedding. During the trip, she said, she lost her personal credit card and put a $120.99 charge at Sandals Resort on her county-issued card. She said she repaid the county but could not provide proof.
"Maybe in the process of copying, paper got lost," said Exum, who has charged more than $34,400 to her card since December 2002.
Exum said she also repaid the 2004 Richmond hotel charge. But when the council administrator provided details of the charges, it was not listed as one that had been reimbursed.
Exum also has used the county's credit card to buy things for her office, including $630 for two television sets, and a $152 gift certificate to European Beauté Concepts, a Mitchellville day spa, for a secretary who was changing jobs, she said.Thomas R. Hendershot
When Hendershot goes to Ocean City for conferences, he said he often takes his wife, Florence, his four grown children and his grandchildren. And he sometimes extends his stay beyond the end of a conference, according to records and interviews. At a Maryland Municipal League conference in June, he rented a six-bedroom, five-bathroom house that cost $2,650 plus tax and stayed three days after the conference ended.
He said he bills half of the Ocean City expenses to the county.
"Doing it that way, the county breaks even," said Hendershot, who is leaving the council next month because of term limits. "They're paying pretty much the same amount if I were going to the same meeting and paying $300 or $400 a night at a hotel.
"If I were to do the same with my family, it would be costing me a hell of a lot. Since the county's going to pay for me to be there anyway, it works out."
About $15,000 of Hendershot's charges on his county card over the past four years, roughly one-quarter of his total charges, was for food and lodging in Ocean City, records show.
"So?" he asked. "I think each member of the council has to make their own choices as to what they should be doing in the interest of the county."
When he has taken his wife on county trips, he said, he has billed the county for her meals.
"She has to eat," he said.