Sept. 27, 2004 Travel, clothing, shoes, expensive gifts, first-class airline upgrades, and even a wedding reception were some of the things charged by a few high-level government officials to V.I. government autonomous agency credit cards.
The largest offenses found in an audit of eight autonomous agencies conducted on fiscal years 1998 to 2003 by the U.S. Interior Department Office of the Inspector General were at WTJX, the territory's public broadcasting station. The station's former general manger ran up $101,370 in personal charges on the agency's credit card. Lori Elskoe, who was fired in September 2003 after reimbursing the agency $84,670, charged on the WTJX credit card:
– $31,430 for airline tickets, car rentals, restaurants, and hotel stays for herself and her family.
– $16,640 for groceries, household items, and beauty products.
– $15,510 for clothing and shoes.
– $13,330 for jewelry; including $6,200 in three purchases at the same store on the same day.
– $9,910 for automotive parts and accessories
– $9,850 for furniture and electronics; including $1, 800 for a flat screen television.
– $4,700 for miscellaneous purchase such as eye wear, pharmaceutical items and souvenirs.
About $10,000 of that amount went to pay for Elskoe's wedding and honeymoon, according to the audit. Travel charges included $7,945 for her wedding reception at the Sugar Bay Resort on Nov. 24, 2001; $996 went to airfare from St. Thomas to St. Lucia on Nov. 25, 2001 and $1,788 was charged for a stay at the Sandals Resort on St. Lucia from Nov. 25 to 30, 2001.
Prior to new procedures being implemented regarding personal use of the government credit card, the board of directors allowed the general manager to use the card for personal use providing that the bill was paid in full, on time, the audit says. However, Elskoe "made increasing amounts of purchases while making only sporadic payments totaling $16,630" over three years. In 2003 she charged $52,436 in personal items while not making a single reimbursement. The chief engineer also used the credit card to charge personal items to the tune of $19,700, with the board's blessing, but made regular and complete reimbursement payments.
Lack of proper supervision along with Elskoe's cover-up of findings of the station's public auditor allowed the abuses to continue unabated for several years.
At the time of her departure from the local PBS affiliate Elskoe was making nearly $70,000 a year, according to one source.
Another $96,190 in WTJX credit card charges that were allegedly business related had not been substantiated with documentation, as of June 2004, the audit says. The report states that the matter of misuse of official credit cards has been referred for further investigative follow-up. It does not indicated to what agency it has been referred.
Credit Card use and abuse at the Water and Power Authority
Down the hill from WTJX's Haypiece Hill studio, Carol Burke, then-chairwoman of the Water and Power Authority board of directors, ran up a bill on a WAPA credit card that she couldn't pay and lost the use of the credit card, as did four others who were using WAPA credit cards for personal purchases. Burke used the card to buy shoes, automotive parts and to rent a car. She then wrote five separate checks, on five separate occasions, the audit reveals, to pay the bills. All five checks bounced. The credit card company canceled her card for delinquency.
When that happened, since she no longer had a WAPA- issued credit card, Burke put in for $9,010 in travel advances, but never provided invoices or receipts to support the advances.
"Although WAPA Board policy mandated submission of a full accounting of travel expenses to the office of the governing board, the chairperson did not prepare any expenditure reports," the audit says.
After repeated requests for the reports, Burke finally submitted four affidavits that covered $3,310 of the $9,010 in question. The affidavits said she had "lost all receipts supporting her travel expenses, but had spent all the money advanced to her, " the audit reads.
No expense reports or affidavits were submitted for the remaining $5,700. In a special governing board meeting Monday, board members decided to pursue reimbursement of the $5,700 from Burke, Cassandra Dunn, WAPA spokesperson, said Monday afternoon.
After serving as chairwoman of the WAPA board for four years, Burke was hired by the authority in October 2003 to the position of director of corporate services for a reported $100,000 a year salary. (See "Burke to Leave WAPA Board, Join Executive Staff").
Seven months later, in May 2004, Burke was fired for violating WAPA regulations relative to hiring practices, when she hired a secretary who continued to work for and collect a paycheck from Hovensa, while also collecting a WAPA paycheck.
(See "Former WAPA Chair Fired from Executive Post").
It was the practice of WAPA to allow certain personnel to use WAPA charge cards to make personal purchases providing the employees paid the bills. When some didn't the credit card company canceled the cards, causing employees to be unable to "efficiently conduct official business," the audit states.
The audit recommended that the used of official credit cards for personal purposes be prohibited. In its response to the recommendation, WAPA wrote it would implement that recommendation along with others involving the suggestion that supporting documents always be provided to support credit card charges and travel advances.
University of the Virgin Island fares better
The audit found that University of the Virgin Island credit cards were held by only eight university officials. During the period audited from October 2000 to August 2003, the cards were used only for travel-related expenses. But that did include $5,300 in upgrades and airline club membership charged by former UVI President Orville Kean and an unnamed vice-president. The audit included current president LaVerne Ragster, but in a letter penned by Vincent Samuel, vice president for administration and finance, to auditors Vincent suggested "that the language in your report be changed to remove" the allegation that Ragster was among officials using the credit card for airline upgrades. Auditors agreed and "adjusted the body of the report." The audit said it was not customary for federal government agencies to cover the cost of airline upgrades. A phone call to Kean for verification that he had used the university credit card for membership and upgrades had not been returned as of publication.
V.I. Port Authority buys expensive gifts for employees and board members
Out of $1.2 million in credit card charges on the Port Authority cards, used by four VIPA officials between October 1997 and September 2003, the audit found "no personal or unsupported charges."
However auditors found some of the gifts purchased for departing employees and board members to be excessive, including:
– $2,250 for three $450 watches and a $900 camcorder for three departing board members.
– $1, 200 for three $400 jeweled pendants and chains for three retiring employees.
"We do not question the gesture of presenting departing employees or officials with tokens of appreciation. However, VIPA should develop procedures to limit the use of public funds for these occasions to a reasonable level," the audit reads.
Darlin Brin, executive director of VIPA, responded that future purchases of gifts would not "be made by use of a credit card to exceed an amount of $300 for a single or multiple items for any staff or board members."
The other four agencies had few credit card problems
The audit of the V. I. Housing Finance Authority, the Economic Develo
pment Authority, the Government Employees Retirement System and the Roy L. Schneider Hospital, found almost no personal use of agency credit cards.
The EDA had only one personal purchase of $120, which was off-set by per diem payment that was not paid at the time of the travel, according to Frank Schulterbrandt, chief executive officer of the EDA.
At the Roy L. Schneider Hospital all $92,000 in credit card purchases during the period of January to September 2003 were for appropriate official purposes and were properly documented.
Auditors found the same scenario at the Government Employees Retirement System only for a much longer period. From January 1999 to September 2003 "We found that all charges to GERS credit cares were for appropriate official purposes and were properly supported.," the audit says.
At the Housing Finance Authority $10,720 in charges were not adequately documented, according to the report, but "We did not find any personal charges on the official credit cards," the audit says.
Of 11 recommendations made in the audit only two were considered unresolved.
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