What's Yours Is Mine

Saturday, November 25, 2006

IN FAIRFAX County, the area's largest jurisdiction, elected members of the local governing body do not have county-issued credit cards. Ditto in Montgomery County. In both localities, politicians who incur expenses on county business pay with personal credit cards, then put in for reimbursement when appropriate. The top elected officials in both counties fly coach when they travel on business.

Not so in Prince George's County, where some local politicians treat county-issued credit cards as publicly funded lines of credit, and where County Executive Jack B. Johnson flies first class or business class at taxpayers' expense. In Prince George's, several County Council members seem to think there's no reason to reach into their own pockets for haircuts, gym memberships, rental cars, office decorations, family vacations or golf outings when they can whip out their county charge cards and reimburse the public in their own good time -- or not. And while Mr. Johnson and the council members insist that they have reimbursed the county when appropriate, neither they nor the county could always produce receipts, canceled checks or other documentation to prove it. Could they have used gold bullion for their purchases?

As reported by The Post's Cheryl W. Thompson, the worst offenders are council members David Harrington, Camille Exum and Thomas R. Hendershot. Mr. Harrington, who seems to use his county card whenever he's short on cash, has charged the county for dry cleaning, video rentals, a haircut and airplane tickets for his college-age son, among other expenses. Ms. Exum, the council's vice chair, has used her county charge card to pay for a chauffeur-driven limo for a two-hour trip with an aide in California. (A rental car is "just too small," she said.) Then there is Mr. Hendershot, who, while attending conferences in Ocean City, spent $15,000 in 3 1/2 years on food and lodging for himself, his wife, his grown children and grandchildren. Of that amount, he says, he billed the county for half.

Mr. Johnson billed hundreds of dollars in personal hotel stays and rental cars to his county credit card; he says he paid the money back. As for his insistence on flying business or first class when he travels on county business -- including to Senegal, for which the round-trip fare was $6,003 -- Mr. Johnson says the county gets its money's worth from his hard work, and that besides, his constituents don't expect him to ride in steerage.

Prince George's County has had similar problems over the years -- in 2000, for instance, when council member Marilynn Bland, then a school board member, charged the county for a family trip to Disney World. Luckily there is a common-sense solution: Elected officials should surrender county-issued credit cards, fly coach and henceforth use personal credit cards for travel, food, lodging and other expenses. When appropriate, they can then claim reimbursement from the county at federal per diem rates. That should rein in some of the profligacy.

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