PLATTSBURGH — A preliminary report from the State Comptroller’s Office shows that credit-card use in the City of Plattsburgh over a recent 21-month period was out of control.

The draft report pointed to several instances where travel by former Mayor Daniel Stewart was not approved by the Common Council and bills for the trips were not properly itemized.

The report also noted that the Common Council approved only three credit cards, all designated for general purpose, but city officials actually had four general-purpose credit cards, 35 vendor cards and 45 fuel credit cards.

“I am very disappointed for this community that I even had to ask for this audit,” Mayor Donald Kasprzak said at a news conference Thursday morning.

“I was angry, but that doesn’t accomplish anything. We need to focus on what we are going to do in the future and make things more accountable.”



NO FIRM POLICY

The audit, which Kasprzak requested shortly after taking office Jan. 1 of this year, covers a period from Jan. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30 of 2006.

The study was one of eight municipal audits done in upstate communities at the same time, which accounted for the delay in the report, the mayor said.

Travel expenses, gasoline purchases and credit-card purchases were all reviewed.

The audit showed the city had no internal controls over credit cards issued to city employees and local officials and did not have a policy in place to control use of credit cards.

The city chamberlain, the city’s chief financial officer, also did not have overall custody of city credit cards.

The report showed specific instances where no record of council approval for overnight travel was granted and that some charges exceeded state per-diem rates.



STEWART’S EXPENSES

Former Mayor Stewart who served from Jan. 1, 2000, to June 23, 2006, was named several times in the draft audit.

The report said he routinely made personal charges using a city-issued credit card.

Stewart apparently reimbursed the city in some instances, the report said, but no system existed to verify the reimbursements.

The former mayor also made trips to Albany and New York City without obtaining prior council approval, as required, the report said.

In many cases, the claims submitted by Stewart lacked details of the city business purpose for which the travel and related expenses were incurred, the report said.

For example, Stewart purchased a $160 satellite radio system for his city vehicle, and the city paid a dry-cleaning bill for $50.

Also, on Oct. 28, 2005, the mayor charged $827 for two nights at a New York City hotel, which the city paid.

Two days later, Stewart submitted a bill for a different hotel in New York City on a different stay and charged half of the $447 to the city and personally reimbursed $223 based on his hand-written notes.

The report also showed seven overnight trips by Stewart costing the city $4,288 total. Only two of the seven trips, worth $1,782 combined, were authorized by the council.

One of those trips was approved two months after the trip was taken.



DEFENDS HIMSELF

The report noted that the lack of documentation makes it difficult to say whether the trips were legitimate.

Stewart, who is now the chairman of the State Commission on Corrections, said Thursday that all his travel was for legitimate city business.

“The council always knew what my trips were, and they approved the bills.”

Stewart said he believes the October 2005 trip to New York City was to meet with U.S. Coast Guard officials to see about having them set up an operation at Wilcox Dock.

He also recalled that he met with an entertainment company to talk about a possible outdoor concert venue at the City Beach.

Stewart said hotels are expensive in New York City, especially if you book without advance notice.

“You can pay $400 a night just for a Holiday Inn down there,” Stewart said.

He added that on many trips he would stay at the home of former State Sen. Ronald B. Stafford in Manhattan.

“That saved the city taxpayers money, and that’s why I did it,” he said.

Stewart said he bought the satellite radio system for his city vehicle so he could tune into the 24-hour weather and traffic channels to aid his travel.

He said he paid for the radio subscription himself.

“I was doing my job, and the council knew about it,” Stewart said.



CHANGES PLANNED

Kasprzak said the city will continue to investigate, and if it is warranted, will seek reimbursement.

“I will work with the chamberlain to see what needs to be paid back, and if the city deserves some reimbursement at some level we will find out.”

Kasprzak said he has already tightened controls on city credit cards, as the report recommends, and will take further steps.

One step will be to develop a comprehensive credit-card policy that sets limits and requires strict documentation.

“There is still legitimate travel that needs to be done, but we have to make sure everything is documented,” Kasprzak said. “That’s the way most people do business.”

Stewart agrees.

“We tried to come up with a policy that mirrored the state policy, and I even assigned a committee to do that,” Stewart said. “But we never got the recommendations from the committee.”

Kasprzak said he is not judging Stewart but wants the situation fixed.

“I’m not saying it was right or wrong, but these are the facts, and I do find it disappointing.

“But we have to move on and correct it so it doesn’t happen again in the future.”



CHAMBERLAIN’S ROLE

Councilor George Rabideau (R-Ward 3), who served with former Mayor Stewart, said the council relies on the chamberlain for correct information.

“We trust that the chamberlain is doing his duties and that the claims before the council are valid,” Rabideau said.

James Buran and Cynthia Lasher-Graham each served as chamberlain during part of the period that was reviewed by the audit.

Richard Marks took over as chamberlain earlier this year after Graham retired for the second time.

Kasprzak said Marks will be the point man on all credit cards from now on.

“There should be one individual aware of what credit cards are being used,” the mayor said.

Another example of a lack of control, Kasprzak said, was the Recreation Department purchasing Halloween candy for Trick or Treat on Safety Street using a credit card from the Water Pollution Control Plant.

While the city’s credit-card use was called into question, the audit showed that gasoline purchases appear to be legitimate.

Councilor James Calnon (I-Ward 4) said it is critical to correct the credit-card problem.

“It should have been done before, but we need to take a little more control of things,” he said.

The city has until Aug. 3 to submit comments to the Comptroller’s Office. The final report should be available in mid August.



E-mail Joe LoTemplio at

jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com

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