Should government agencies pick up the meal costs when spouses of elected officials attend out-of-town meetings and conferences?
A Southeast Los Angeles County water district did just that, to the tune of several thousand dollars.
In explaining a policy change two years ago, a staffer for the Central Basin Municipal Water District wrote in an internal email that spouses “help bring a different atmosphere to the business discussions between directors and other guests.” The staffer acknowledged that the policy could result in “questioning by reporters and auditors on these types of reimbursements.”
And indeed it has.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is probing Central Basin’s travel expenses, focusing on meal reimbursements for spouses and others.
David Demerjian, head of the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, said investigators are still collecting information and are not sure how much money is involved. He said four of the five Central Basin directors may have violated the law, collecting thousands of dollars in meal reimbursements for their spouses and other public officials.
“There’s very strict rules on expenditures of taxpayer money, and public officials cannot spend taxpayer money as they see fit,” Demerjian said. “There has to be a public purpose.”
The issue has come up before. In 1990, the city of Norwalk’s practice of routinely paying the expenses of spouses who accompanied council members to conferences drew criticism from the city attorney.
In 1992, when a similar issue arose with a public hospital, the state attorney general’s office weighed in, saying that reimbursing such expenses was a violation of the state Constitution.
“We find no direct and substantial purpose to be served in paying the traveling and incidental expenses of a director’s spouse so as to justify an expenditure of public funds,” the attorney general’s office stated. “The payment would be unconstitutional.”
Complaints about travel expenses of public officials come up frequently, Demerjian said, and complaints about spouses’ perks arise from time to time. But the prosecutor said it was “unusual” that Central Basin changed its code of conduct to allow such payments.
In a brief interview with The Times, Central Basin General Manager Art Aguilar said the district revised its policy after prosecutors began their inquiry.
“We asked the D.A., ‘OK, then what is the way it should be?’” Aguilar said, “and that’s one reason we changed the policy.”
Aquilar said the district originally decided it could cover the expenses of spouses if “there was a beneficial effect to the overall business.” After a district budget meeting last week, Aguilar was asked for an example of how paying for the meal of a director’s spouse could benefit the public agency. “I don’t want to think off the top of my head. I got numbers in my head right now,” he said.
County prosecutors began their investigation after the San Gabriel Valley Tribune published several articles last year detailing tens of thousands of dollars spent by Central Basin’s directors during conference trips, including late-night room service. It’s unclear when the investigation will be complete.
Michael Colantuono, a veteran municipal lawyer and former president of the League of California Cities’ city attorney department, said the water district’s reasoning to allow spouses’ meals to be reimbursed because doing so changes the “atmosphere” of business meetings struck him as “indefensible.”
“To me it sounds like it makes it more fun,” he said. “Well, it’s not the purpose of the district to make meetings more fun.”
Colantuono said public lawyers often talk about these issues, and the consensus is that to justify paying a spouse’s expense, a public agency needs to determine that “the presence of the spouse is necessary to accomplish the purpose of the district.” That would be an exceedingly rare finding, he said.
L.A. County prosecutors also have been looking into other elected officials’ travel costs.
Last year, four current and former Irwindale officials, including a councilman, were charged with misspending thousands of dollars in city money on lavish trips to New York, supposedly to boost the city’s bond rating. The trips included outings to five-star restaurants and Broadway shows, baseball games and rounds of golf.
Prosecutors say the events had nothing to do with city business.
Times staff writer Sam Allen contributed to this report.