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Top officials in Vernon traveled lavishly at city expense

Top administrators in Vernon, already among the highest-paid local officials in the state, racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in city-paid expenses on first-class flights, luxury hotels like the Ritz Carlton and limousine service, records reviewed by The Times show.

The records, which cover 2005-2010, detail lavish travel expenses billed to the city by its top executives, including then-city administrators Donal O’Callaghan and Eric T. Fresch. Some of the trips occurred as recently as this year, when the city laid off employees and canceled the life and health insurance benefits of city workers’ spouses and children because of budget problems.

Details of the travel expenses come amid growing scrutiny of the largely industrial city of roughly 90 residents, where top city attorneys and administrators received high salaries, most notably Fresch, who in 2008 earned more than $1.6 million. Revelations about the travel bills sparked criticism from some in the city.

“Many of the property and business owners in the city of Vernon are outraged that our hard-earned tax dollars are being used to support public officials traveling in such a luxurious manner,” said Steve Freed, president of the Vernon Property Assn.

In one short trip to New York in February 2007, O’Callaghan, Fresch and a financial advisor flew first class to New York for a combined cost of more than $12,700. O’Callaghan and the financial advisor, Craig Underwood, each stayed one night at the Ritz-Carlton, paying a nightly rate of about $800.

Fresch, who stayed four nights, spent more than $7,600 at the Ritz-Carlton. The bill included services from Paris Limo totaling $2,251 for four separate days. The city also reimbursed Fresch for $485 he spent dining at the Four Seasons New York.

The records show Fresch routinely commuted from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to L.A. first class for more than $931 per round trip. In a few instances, he spent more than $1,100 for the relatively short air commute. He also incurred a bill of $350 at the United Red Carpet Airport Club, according to one city invoice.

When asked to explain the expenses, Vernon Interim City Administrator Mark Whitworth issued a statement to The Times saying that he had directed his staff to review whether a new expense and reimbursement policy is need to “govern staff travel.”

As for Fresch’s travel expenses, Whitworth added: “Mr. Fresch maintains his residence in Northern California and the City was aware of this and agreed to reimburse his travel.”

Fresch has held numerous positions since he started working for Vernon in the 1980s, including city attorney from 2003 to 2006 and city administrator from 2006 to 2009. In an August interview with The Times, he said that he represented Vernon in matters related to its energy business and that he had previous experience at a New York-based finance firm.

The Times reported last week that Fresch and other Vernon staff attorneys are in line to receive larger pensions based on their classification as “safety employees,” a CalPERS category typically reserved for police, firefighters or other public workers who are in harm’s way. Fresch now works as special counsel to the city at a rate of $525 per hour.

City government experts said that first-class travel is highly unusual for even top municipal officials and that many cities have strict rules regulating how much officials can spend on trips.

“I am not aware of any local government officials in the state of California that travel first class at local government expense,” said Dave Mora, a regional director at the International City/County Management Assn.

He said the amounts Vernon spent on first-class airfare “didn’t make sense.”

The Vernon expenditures are the latest in a series of disclosures about city compensation insoutheast Los Angeles County, which began in July when The Times revealed the high salaries paid to top officials in neighboring Bell. The Bell salary scandal prompted legislation in Sacramento and is the subject of several outside investigations.

The records obtained by The Times under a public records request are not complete, and they do not include expenses for Fresch for the last two years. But they nevertheless show a pattern of paying top dollar for airfare and hotels.

When O’Callaghan came to Vernon as a contractor in April 2005, his initial employment agreement required that he travel “economy class” if possible and make a “reasonable attempt” to book flights in advance to take advantage of lower airfare. By 2007, O’Callaghan had moved to executive positions within the city and those limitations were no longer in place. He replaced Fresch as city administrator in 2009, and also worked as director of Light and Power.

Records show that O’Callaghan traveled several times out of the country, including to Ireland and Sweden.

In June 2007, he flew British Airways first class to Dublin via London at a total cost of $9,318, according to city records. In late October of that year, O’Callaghan flew on the same airline to Stockholm, paying $11,328 for the airfare. In February 2008, according to a March invoice to reimburse him, O’Callaghan paid $5,762 to fly to Dublin. He traveled once again to Ireland in October 2008, paying at least $5,000 for airfare, according to available records.

The purpose of O’Callaghan’s trips overseas was unclear, but in his statement, Whitworth said that O’Callaghan “traveled in the course of his duties for the City, including for the purposes of a knowledge exchange program regarding environmental sustainability practices.”

Two weeks ago, O’Callaghan was placed on administrative leave as Vernon officials conduct a “comprehensive review” of his and his wife’s financial dealings with the well-heeled city. He declined to comment on the matter.

Earlier this year, O’Callaghan told The Times the city had no choice but to take away employees’ families benefits, saying the budget tightening was necessary.

“The bottom line is that Vernon is in solid financial shape because we take tough actions like today,” he said. “Fiscal responsibility means that you manage your costs.”

sam.allen@latimes.com

hector.becerra@latimes.com


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