Lobdell: Chief’s expense reports offer clues

I’ve been looking through the expense reports of Costa Mesa Police Chief Christopher Shawkey and Capt. Ron Smith, searching for clues as to why they were unexpectedly put on administrative leave in November.

After poring through more than 200 pages of public documents, I didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see a potential problem: Shawkey had bought hundreds of gallons of gasoline on a city-issued credit card in places far from his Costa Mesa post.

For instance, during a nine-day period last summer, Shawkey used taxpayer money to purchase more than 161 gallons of gas that included stations in the California desert, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming.

Shawkey’s expense reports over a 22-month period also showed receipts from gas stations in Arizona (where he gassed up 39 times), Big Bear City and other towns outside of Orange County.

In September, Shawkey used his city-issued credit card to buy more than 155 gallons of gas, including three purchases on Sept. 19 alone in Goodyear and Mesa, Ariz. and Cabazon.

Shawkey’s city-owned car — a Ford Taurus — gets a reported 28 miles to the gallon on the highway, meaning he used enough gas in September to travel 4,340 miles — the equivalent of driving from the East to the West Coast and then back East again past Denver.

Smith, the department’s second-ranking official who was also put on leave, approved each of Shawkey’s expense reports from February 2009 to November 2010. Both men signed the documents verifying that the gas purchases were “for official business only.”

I tried to reach Smith and Shawkey by their city e-mail accounts, but didn’t hear back from them. Both men have turned down the Daily Pilot’s interview requests about why they were suspended, though Smith did tell the paper he plans to retire.

Since City Manager Allan Roeder placed Shawkey and Smith on leave, city officials have been tightlipped about the reasons behind the move.

Roeder declined to comment for this column, citing privacy laws governing police personnel issues. It’s unknown whether Shawkey’s gas purchases played any role in him or Smith being placed on leave.

City policy states that employees can’t make personal purchases on the credit card — the city uses the term procurement card — and those who do are subject to disciplinary action. It also states those who approve personal purchases of other employees may be disciplined.

Shawkey, hired as police chief in 2006, was a 26-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department and, during his Costa Mesa tenure, had received whispered criticism for spending too much time in Arizona.

Until April, property records show Shawkey and his wife owned a home in Mesa, Ariz. The Shawkeys have also owned a home in Coto de Caza that they bought for $1.4 million in 2007, according to public documents.

In total, Shawkey submitted 163 gas receipts for $4,827 over the 22 months on what he stated was city business. Fifty-seven percent of the gas buys were made outside of Orange County, including 14 purchases each in California desert communities and Utah, nine times in Big Bear City and four times each in Nevada and Wyoming.

Shawkey also purchased gas 68 times in Orange County — including two buys in Costa Mesa — though city cars can be refueled at the Costa Mesa Police Department and the city yard on Placentia Avenue.

In contrast to Shawkey’s gas purchases, Smith bought the equivalent of about one tank of gas on each monthly expense report he submitted.

On his expense reports, Shawkey didn’t submit any receipts for related hotel stays, meals or conference fees during his road trips, which could indicate he was on official business.

If it were true that Shawkey used taxpayer money to buy gas for his personal use, does this solve the mystery as to why he and Smith were put on leave?

Maybe. The amount of money in question is relatively small, and I think the alleged misstep would normally be handled with a quiet wrist slap from a disappointed Roeder and demand to repay any misspent taxpayer funds.

I’d also suggest that no one is placed again in Smith’s difficult spot of having to approve his boss’s expense report. Someone above the chief — such as the city manager — should be put in the watchdog role.

Something — some facts or maybe a whistleblower or two — had forced Roeder’s hand and caused him to act sternly, even if it meant leaking (by putting Costa Mesa’s two top cops on leave) a whiff of scandal at the city’s Police Department.

If I were a betting man, I’d say the gas receipts are leading us in the right direction, but they aren’t telling the whole story.

We’ll keep digging.

WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is