The political season had just begun last February when the coffers of this tiny industrial city received some money from unusual sources--two councilmen handed over personal checks totaling $3,612.
The money was received only a few days after Ruth R. Aldaco filed as a candidate for the council and immediately requested copies of council expense reports, hoping that they might contain an issue she could take on the campaign trail.
Between the time Aldaco sought the forms and the time she received them four weeks later, however, Mayor Pro Tem Robert J. Cornejo and Councilman Lawrence Maese refunded several expenses that they had billed to taxpayers nine months before.
From Cornejo, back came $398 used to fly his wife, Sandra, to Hawaii, where she accompanied him to a conference last May. Back, too, came $56 that covered her air fare around the islands, and $298 to fly in June with her husband on a city-organized cultural excursion to Washington. In all, the mayor pro tem returned $752.
Likewise from Maese, back came $56 that he had used to fly his wife, Lucy, around Hawaii, and $298 for her fare for the June trip to Washington .
But Maese--himself a candidate up for election April 8--didn’t stop there, city records show. In all, the appointed councilman returned $2,860, including:
- $885 in other expense money advanced for the Hawaii trip.
- $1,071 for personal bills charged on a city credit card.
- $550 for expenses at a conference last April in Montreal, where Maese charged $534 in purchases at a women’s shop called Alouette Lingerie Inc.
“I don’t think $500 worth of lingerie is city business, do you?” Aldaco said to a reporter recently, after defeating Maese at the polls and disclosing the expense reports, which raise a variety of questions about the way Commerce officials use tax money to travel and entertain in the name of better government.
The reports show that council members spent $30,664 last year, which--when figured per capita--is more than 2 1/2 times the amounts recorded in half a dozen other Southeast cities. For example, Commerce council members spent $2.58 for each of the city’s 11,884 residents, while their counterparts in Norwalk--where spiraling expenses became a heated election issue--spent 98 cents. That city spent $87,019 on council expenses, but has 89,113 residents.
City Administrator Edward Oliva said per capita comparisons don’t necessarily account for the uniqueness of Commerce, a city dominated by commuters who work there by day but reside elsewhere. “We have that base of 12,000 (residents),” Oliva said, “but we operate on the basis of 60,000" with a budget of $16 million.
In addition, Cornejo said that council expenses last year were greater than usual partly due to festivities planned around the city’s 25th birthday. The $14,913 spent in 1983-84 also was a substantial $1.27 per resident when compared to other Southeast cities.
In recent interviews, Cornejo and Maese acknowledged making the personal charges and eventually paying the money back, although not because Aldaco was on the verge of obtaining their records. Both men said they never intended to have taxpayers foot the bill.
And they emphasized that council spending habits--which last year financed a dozen trips around the state, as well as into Mexico and Canada, plus more than 200 breakfasts, lunches and dinners where the public’s business was ostensibly discussed--are not only proper but also in line with the type of expenses incurred by other cities.
‘A Routine Matter’
Cornejo said he “had forgotten all about” his wife’s expenses until finance officials reminded him of them in February. “There was some delay in the billing,” he said, describing his repayment as “a routine matter.”
And Maese explained his purchases at Alouette Lingerie.
“I bought my wife some dresses, and my daughters, and a few items for gifts,” the former councilman said. “I bought one shirt. . . . It was a Hawaiian shirt. . . . My wife saw it and wanted to buy it for me. I bought about $700, $800, $900 worth of dresses for them.”
Shortly before the Montreal trip, Maese explained, he told Finance Director John Mitsuuchi that “I didn’t want to carry that much money.” So he said Mitsuuchi agreed to let him charge the expenses on a city credit card with the understanding that “when I came back they (would) bill me for it.”
Maese blamed finance officials for not calling his attention to the expenses months ago.
“I’m not so dumb that I’m going to charge the city for clothes I bought my wife,” Maese said. “That’s stupid.”
‘Flagged’ by Auditors
Mitsuuchi conceded that he was aware of the personal bills, but had put off asking the councilmen to settle up even after the charges were “flagged” by independent auditors last December.
The finance director said he doesn’t routinely police council expense reports, in keeping with a policy that lets council members monitor each other’s spending. “I’m a staff member and I don’t question somebody else’s signature,” he said. When a voucher is submitted for reimbursement, city accountants mostly “make sure that it adds,” he said.
Aldaco said she suspects that both councilmen made the refunds only “because I had asked for copies of their expenses. . . . because it was going public.” Even though she ultimately won election without making reference to the councilmen’s refunds, Aldaco said: “I think the public should know about it. I would like to change the whole (expense reporting) process.”
In particular, Aldaco noted that some of Maese’s personal charges had been approved by Cornejo.
“I can’t see one council member approving another’s expenses,” she said. While Aldaco said she didn’t know enough about council spending to judge whether it was out of line, she did fault the way the expenses are reported. “There are just no checks and balances the way that it’s done,” she said.
But Cornejo and Maese said that politics played no part in their decisions to repay the expenses. When finance officials asked them to return the money on Feb. 4, both said they had no idea that Aldaco had asked to review records only three days before.
City officials acknowledge that, in any event, the episode has prompted them to crack down on all employee expense reporting.
“We’ve made an adjustment because of this happening,” said James Duran, assistant city administrator. While spouses accompany city officials on business trips “about 99% of the time,” he said, except for an annual trip to Commerce’s sister city in Mexico, they are usually expected to pay their own way. Now, spouses will be required to pay their air fare even before stepping on the plane.
Among the dozen trips that one or more councilmen took at taxpayer expense during the 1984-85 fiscal year were major excursions to:
- Montreal, for the five-day American Planning Assn. conference April 20-24, 1985. City officials attending along with Maese were Mayor James B. Dimas Sr., Councilmen Michael V. Guerra and Arturo Marquez, plus all six members of the city Planning Commission and two administrative staffers.
Air fare for the 12 officials cost $5,506. Another $10,200 was advanced for hotel and per diem expenses. On April 18, Dimas billed the city for $29 worth of “film for the trip” purchased at Los Angeles International Airport. And one evening in Montreal, he treated the planning commissioners to a $407 dinner.
“None of our department heads had a credit card,” Dimas said last week, “and I had to use my credit card.”
- Hawaii, for the eight-day National Assn. of Housing and Redevelopment Officials conference May 17-24, 1985. Cornejo, Maese and their wives attended, along with Public Works Director Manuel Jimenez. Each official was advanced $1,325 for expenses, some of which was refunded by the two councilmen.
Records show that Maese charged an additional $72 for a “Hawaiian Holiday Tour,” $206 for “wearing apparel” at a shop called Nani Wear, $387 for accommodations at the Sheraton Waikiki, $405 for hotel expenses at the Kona Surf Resort and $530 for Turtle Bay Hilton expenses that included some charges made by Jimenez, who had his city credit card “refused by (the hotel’s) computer.”
Cornejo said trips to such conferences do much to improve the governmental knowledge of councilmen and other city officials. “It’s not just a matter of going out there and seeing the sights,” he said. “We send each one of our commissions"--six groups with a total of about 34 members--"on a national convention wherever that convention is held that year. . . . the Planning Commission, the Library Commission, the Public Safety Commission . . .”
While “the information that one gathers from whatever activity depends on the individual,” Cornejo continued, “we request and are requiring full reports (when they return). I think it’s broadening the scope of most of the members.”
Annual Visit to Mexico
There were also two city excursions to Washington, two to Palm Springs, and what has become an annual visit to Commerce’s Mexican sister city of Aguascalientes--the only trip council spouses are traditionally allowed to take at taxpayer expense. Last November, the city paid $1,090 for air fare from Tijuana to Aguascalientes covering Dimas, Cornejo, Guerra and their wives, records show.
The councilman who traveled the most was Marquez. He took 11 trips, including the one to Montreal, two to Palm Springs and one to Washington. But in part because he is a college student with a somewhat more flexible schedule, officials said, he was the councilman most frequently called on to make shorter trips on city business to Sacramento--where he went five times--and Oakland--where he went twice.
Although Marquez spent $6,360 on travel and meals, only 48 of his billings were meals totaling about $1,200, thousands less than Dimas and Cornejo.
Other council expenses have ranged from the $26 Marquez spent on what is described only as “flowers” last April to the $62 that Cornejo spent on “golf” last August to the $40 that Dimas spent a year ago January to rent formal wear for the city’s Silver Anniversary Celebration. Officials say all of the charges had something to do with government business.
But the most frequent item that councilmen purchase is food. And the two biggest spenders during the 1984-85 fiscal year were Dimas and Cornejo: The mayor treated himself and others to at least 101 meals, costing about $4,300, while the mayor pro tem picked up at least 103 breakfast, lunch or dinner checks costing about $4,200.
Dimas said mealtimes are often “more convenient” occasions to meet with other officials and fellow council members who want to “get away from City Hall. You can’t do anything at City Hall without someone knowing,” he said with a chuckle.
And when trying to attract new businesses to the community, Dimas added, “we will meet with big companies and we will pick up the tab, like any business would.” Entertaining dignitaries, he said, is “just part of the duties of an elected city official.”
Tour of Queen Mary
For example, on Jan. 13, 1985--a Sunday--Dimas paid $76 for meals at Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine Restaurant in Monterey Park. The occasion was for “pre-planning Sister City program,” according to records.
On Jan. 24, Dimas bought two meals totaling $110 at the South Street Deli & Bakery in Cerritos, where he was hosting “Sister City program people.” And that same day he spent $165 to take the group on a tour of the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
And last August, Dimas spent $61 to buy cigars for some sister city visitors.
“It seems to me like some of (those meetings) could have taken place in an office instead of a restaurant,” Aldaco said.
But Cornejo countered that because he and Dimas are part-time city officials with “full-time” jobs, “we have to grab every opportunity (to discuss public business) that we can. We really don’t have (city) office hours as such.”
Cornejo is an account executive for Sun Carriers, an industrial transportation company, and Dimas is a county sheriff’s deputy assigned to personnel administration.
Meanwhile, Dimas said, many people don’t realize that being a public official often requires him to dip into his own pocket for city expenses, although the costs are eventually reimbursed. (The mayor and the councilmen are paid $412 a month and have the use of a car for city business.)
“This last year has really been tough on me,” Dimas said.
Speaking of one recent annual event, the mayor complained, “I always provide the corsages for all the incoming officers and that gets to be expensive.”
TRAVEL AND MEETING EXPENSES
Figures from the 1984-85 fiscal year compare Commerce City Council travel and meeting expenses with those from seven nearby cities.
Total Council Council Council Expenses City Pop. Members Expenses Per Resident Commerce 11,884 5 $30,664 $2.58 Bellflower 57,783 5 $32,178 $0.56 Cerritos 55,822 5 $15,655 $0.28 Downey 83,752 5 $10,133 $0.12 Long Beach 386,047 9 $71,140 $0.18 Los Angeles 3,096,721 15 $93,758 $0.03 Norwalk 89,113 5 $87,019 $0.98 South Gate 78,569 5 $2,417 $0.03
COMMERCE CITY COUNCIL EXPENSES FOR FISCAL 1985
Earlier this year, after a City Council candidate requested copies of council expense records for possible use in her campaign:
Mayor Pro Tem Robert J. Cornejo repaid the city $752 for his wife’s air fare to Hawaii and Washington.
Councilman Lawrence Maese repaid $2,860 the city spent for his wife’s air fare and for clothes bought during a conference in Montreal.
In the same year, Mayor James B. Dimas Sr. billed the city for 101 meals, costing about $4,300.
WHO SPENT WHAT Councilman Expenses James B. Dimas Sr. $7,817
Robert J. Cornejo 8,751
Michael Guerra 3,046
Arturo Marquez 6,360
Lawrence Maese 4,030