Two Managers Claim One Hotel Stay Three Times

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

If you live in South County and pay your water bills to the Santa Margarita Water District, just think of this as the hotel bill you paid three times.

The $340.67 bill was claimed twice on expense accounts of the district's assistant general manager, and once by his boss, who had approved reimbursement for the bill to his subordinate, before also claiming reimbursement for himself.

The total paid out to Walter W. (Bill) Knitz, the general manager, and his deputy, Michael P. Lord, came to $1,022.01.

Confronted by two Times reporters with evidence of the triple-billing, the men initially denied any irregularity, and insisted that the three expense account items for identical sums must have reflected two distinct bills paid by the two men on the same trip, with the third claim resulting from a different trip altogether, since there was a three-month gap between the first and second time that Lord put the bill on his expense sheet.

"If we were there at the same time in the same kind of room, why wouldn't the charges be identical, his and mine?" Lord said when shown documents revealing the triple billing.

"I'm sure we can pull up details that are not included in your cursory analysis," added Lord, who had been the district's chief financial officer before being promoted to his present position.

But less than 24 hours later, without any further comment from Lord or Knitz, the district faxed to The Times copies of two checks it said the men had written after the interview to repay not only the $681.34 they had wrongly claimed on their expense accounts, but another smaller double-billing that the district's controller spotted when she reviewed copies of the two Lord expense accounts produced by The Times.

In a memo she wrote as a result of questions posed by The Times about the triple-billing, district controller Carol Megara said she had reviewed the matter and that the $340.67 hotel bill "should not have been submitted or reimbursed to Bill Knitz . . . since this item was charged on Mike Lord's credit card."

But while Knitz signed Lord's credit card slip and gave the customer copy to Lord, he kept the actual hotel bill, which he attached to his expense sheet when submitting his claim.

Although Lord later used the credit card slip when reimbursement for the bill was claimed a third time, he actually used his monthly MasterCard statement to support his first expense account claim for the sum on Nov. 15, 1986. Knitz signed and approved that expense account in time for Lord to be reimbursed with a check dated Nov. 17, 1986.

Two weeks later, Knitz claimed the hotel bill on his Dec. 2, 1986, expense sheet. Megara's review concluded that it was the same hotel room charge that Lord included on his Nov. 15 expense account.

The third payment for the bill resulted from Lord's March 15, 1987, expense account, to which the credit card slip was stapled.

The bill in question is dated Sept. 26, 1986, and is from the Four Seasons Clift hotel in San Francisco. It shows that Knitz stayed in Room 704 at a rate of $164.63 a night. He--or someone using the room--consumed $92.75 worth of items stocked in the room's "mini-bar" and ordered $22.64 in room service during a one-night stay that ended with a 9:56 a.m. checkout. Phone calls costing $46.15 and a $14.50 parking charge brought the bill to a grand total of $340.67.

For some unexplained reason, the hotel put the charges for Knitz's room on Lord's credit card.

Each time the bill was submitted on an approved expense account, the Santa Margarita Water District issued checks covering the total amount.

Did either of the men deliberately claim an expense to which he was not entitled?

"Absolutely not," Lord said. "I think there are more than one trip here. At that particular point in time, there were a number of trips each year to District Securities (a former state regulatory agency). . . . We were up there on a regular basis."

Near the end of an interview, however, Knitz acknowledged there probably had been "a mistake."

Without assigning blame for the improper claims, Megara's memo to Lord noted that both of his expense accounts had been completed by his secretary.

Triple-Bill the District

The $340.67 hotel bill shown below was claimed twice on expense accounts of the Santa Margarita Water District's No. 2 official, Michael P. Lord, and once by his boss, Walter W. (Bill) Knitz. Knitz approved his subordinate's reimbursement before also claiming payment for himself. After questions were raised by The Times, Lord and Knitz both refunded the $340.67 each had been overpaid.

MasterCard statement: Lord used his MasterCard statement to claim reimbursement for the $340.67 hotel charge. It was one of four MasterCard charges submitted on his Nov. 15, 1986, expense sheet.

Bill from Four Seasons Clift hotel: This is the actual bill for Knitz's one-night stay at San Francisco's Four Seasons Clift hotel. Using this bill, Knitz claimed reimbursement for $340.67 when he submitted his expenses on Dec. 2, 1986. After questions were raised by The Times, the water district's controller concluded Knitz never should have made the claim.

Credit card slip: Four months after he had already been reimbursed for the expense, Lord attached a copy of the credit card slip to his March 15, 1987, expense account, and the bill was paid for a third time. Lord refunded this amount, and another double-billing for $31.75 found on the same account after questions were raised.

Source: Santa Margarita Water District documents

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