Police Spending Review Sparks Recall by Tustin of Credit Cards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Municipal officials have recalled all credit cards issued to city officials and ordered an audit of expense accounts for the last two years as the result of a preliminary review revealing excessive credit card use by top police officers for unexplained luncheons.

"The preliminary review so far is (that) there has been too much use of the credit cards in the Police Department for lunch expenses," City Manager William A. Huston said Tuesday. "The question of whether they are . . . legitimate expenses is another issue. The one thing we've discovered is we have not had a good accounting for credit card expenses."

"It's not just the chief; it's all police management," Huston said.

Huston said there have been cases in which lunches were not properly explained or accounted for on expense vouchers, or signatures were lacking on credit card slips.

"Nobody has stepped forward with any facts that would be considered improper," he said, "but there's enough of these innuendoes around that we'll take a good look at it."

Police Chief W. Douglas Franks and Capts. Fred Wakefield and Steve Foster, who also had city credit cards, declined comment Tuesday.

Councilman Jeffrey Thomas said he and Councilmen Jim Potts and Thomas R. Saltarelli initially reviewed a year's worth of charge account records, after Potts received a tip from a city employee and found some expenses to "appear questionable."

Thomas said he does not know who the tipster was. Potts and other council members declined comment Tuesday. Council members referred press questions to Huston, with whom they have discussed the issue privately for several weeks.

Huston said no one has offered any firsthand information of wrongdoing. "It's all been second- and third-hand," he said.

Moreover, Huston said, only $1,939 has been spent of the $11,518 budgeted in 1992-93 for police meals, meetings, travel and conferences. It is possible that some expenses were charged to other accounts, Huston said. The audit will seek to determine whether meals and other expenses have been charged to the proper accounts, he said.

The 117-man Tustin Police Department has 17 management personnel at the rank of sergeant and above and two civilian management employees. In addition to the credit cards issued the chief and two captains, a variety of other personnel have had use of another credit card in the department, Huston said.

Huston said the police credit cards could legitimately be used for what might appear to be inappropriate purchases, such as $90 worth of diapers.

"One could jump to the conclusion it's personal (use)," he said. "But the department does require diapers from time to time for children of arrestees."

"One area we want to tighten up on is who is authorized to incur any kind of expense and for what purpose and to make sure the documentation is there. Things like lunches we can control. It's just a matter of (saying) knock it off."

Huston said that his review of records turned up a $130 luncheon at the Rusty Pelican in Newport Beach but that he did not recall who signed for it. "There better be a damn good reason for somebody to have that kind of expense," Huston said.

"There are legitimate business purposes, and that's fine. But the frequency and how many people go and for what purpose, we're really going to tighten up on."

Huston has discussed credit card usage with Chief Franks, and "based on what information the chief has, he doesn't feel there's any impropriety," Huston said.

"It's embarrassing, obviously," Huston said. "Unfortunately the public looks at this as another example of bureaucrats run amok. We really have a good staff of hard-working people."

"So far . . . there's nobody who has stepped forward to say, 'I have evidence of wrongdoing within the Police Department.' If there's wrongdoing, it will be dealt with."

Controversy is not new to Franks. When he was police chief in Montpelier, Vt., he was criticized for having the city pay for his car repairs, according to a Sgt. John Martin of the Montpelier Police Department, who worked with Franks there in the late 1970s.

"In lieu of the city giving him a car, he was allowed a (maintenance) budget for his car," Martin said. "Some people didn't like it. They complained because he had a benefit somebody else didn't have."

And Frank resigned his job as Thornton, Colo., police chief under pressure after allegations that he recruited candidates to run for the City Council there, according to published reports.

But in Tustin, department morale is high, and while there are continuing contract negotiations between the Tustin Police Officers' Assn. and the city, there are no labor problems, Huston said.

Police Officer Barney LaBarge, president of the police association, said the allegations of credit card abuse did not originate from members of the union's board of directors or executive officers.

But LaBarge said: "I can't say that some member of the police officers' association may or may not have been the employee who came forward."

Correspondent Bert Eljera contributed to this story.

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