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Controller continues to investigate credit-card use



Published: Fri, August 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Officials said failure to turn in receipts is a problem among the employees who use the county cards.

By MARY GRZEBIENIAK

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

MERCER -- County Controller Dennis Songer said Thursday that it will be several weeks before his office's investigation into county credit-card use is completed.

At the instruction of District Attorney James Epstein, Songer said he cannot say which groups or individuals are being investigated -- only that "some questions have arisen on a few of them."

The issue came to light last week when commissioners circulated a memo to all county elected officials and department heads stating that county-issued credit cards have been misused.

Concerns: Commissioner Brian Shipley said the memo was in response to "some very legitimate concerns about people who did not attach receipts and charged more on the cards for meals than the policy allows." But he emphasized that the problems were "innocent things" and added, "I have not seen any intentional bad faith."

He said the memo was circulated to warn card users to be more careful about adhering to county policy. Commissioner Olivia Lazor agreed. Contacted late Thursday afternoon, she said "a couple of incidents," which she believes have since been resolved, triggered the memo.

Songer agreed with Shipley that failure to turn in receipts is a problem among the employees who use the county cards. "We are supposed to have proper backup and confirmation," he said. "We have had people who lost receipts and we have had to make calls to get copies."

Employees are required to provide itemized receipts so their bills can be scrutinized to see whether any cost are not allowable. For example, alcoholic beverages are not allowed to be charged to the county. Any charged expenses not eligible must be reimbursed to the county within five days of the card user's return from the county business trip.

Lazor said that the credit cards have become necessary because some hotels will no longer accept a letter of credit, then trust the county to pay when billed.

Commissioners' cards: But since issuing that memo, commissioners have drawn criticism of their own credit card policy. They found themselves on the defensive during their regular meeting Thursday when presented with a newspaper's request for a list of their own credit card transactions from Jan. 1, 2000 to the present.

Commission Chairman Gene Brenneman said the request will be referred to Solicitor Lewis McEwen.

Lazor said she had already agreed to provide a list.

Because questions have been raised about how the cards are used, Lazor turned her credit card in to the fiscal department Wednesday along with a list of proposed policy changes. She said she believes commissioners should follow the same policy as everybody else.

Commissioners are the only officeholders who have their own credit cards, which are billed directly to them instead of through the fiscal department. They also keep their cards and do not have to turn them in after each use, unlike the others.

Songer agreed that different way commissioners' cards are handled is a problem. He said he would like to see it changed because it stymies the system of checks and balances.

He added that commissioners use the cards infrequently, generally only when they have to travel overnight on county business.

Besides the commissioners' credit cards, the fiscal department keeps four cards that may be checked out by employees traveling on county business. The sheriff's department and Children and Youth Services also have one credit card apiece.




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