Two members did not fully report meals purchased on MCPS money
Two members of the Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) spent MCPS money for meals they did not document as Board-related, according to a former BOE Citizens Budget Review subcommittee chairman, who called on the seven-member Board to use expense forms as cited in the BOE Operations Handbook.
At the suggestion of Bob Astrove, who chaired the budget subcommittees from 1997 to 1999, Silver Chips inspected copies of meal receipts Board members submitted for payment by MCPS between July 2001 and September 2002. The receipts show that in the 14-month period, MCPS paid approximately $1,017 for BOE member Walter Lange's meals and approximately $1,310 for then-BOE President Reggie Felton's meals. Neither Lange nor Felton wrote with whom he ate on any of the receipts.
"There was no indication on the receipts as to what the purpose of the meal was," Astrove said. "It is the taxpayers' money, and it should be well documented."
Lange said the recent concerns have prompted him to start writing names on receipts, which no one previously told him to do. Felton said he did not write the names because it was not required and because "it hasn't been an issue in the past." If the Board decides to require the names, Felton said he would comply.
The Board might change its reimbursement standards when it meets in January, said BOE Staff Assistant Roland Ikheloa, who initially approves expenses. "We have a few people who have neglected to put the names on. They need to be putting the names on," he said.
The reimbursement procedure, Felton said, relies "on the honesty and integrity of Board members as corporations do for members of their staff."
But the BOE's standards are looser than most in the corporate world, according to Tax Manager Bernie Phillips, who has worked for the National Society of Accountants for ten years. Corporate employees typically must indicate the business purpose of their meal to get reimbursed, Phillips said.
He called the Board's practices "sloppy" and said a government office should be especially strict about reimbursements. "This is supported by taxpayers' money. If they don't feel they have to answer to the taxpayers, shame on them," said Phillips.
BOE Staff Director George Margolies, who signs every reimbursement request, said he approved the receipts for reimbursement because he has never received suggestions that Board members were not on official business.
Margolies defended current reimbursement standards as sufficient to hold Board members accountable. He did note that some Board members are more vigilant than others and said he has reminded them to write names on receipts.
Prince George's County Board members do not get reimbursed unless they write the names of meal companions on their receipts, according to Cheryl Landis, executive officer of the Prince George's County BOE.
Likewise, Anthony South, executive director of the Maryland State BOE, said State BOE members use receipts and expense forms that indicate the purpose of an event. If Board members get reimbursed for meals, South said, "I think we all need to know" with whom they are eating.
Montgomery County Board member Sharon Cox and Board President Pat O'Neill said they write names on receipts to provide records showing that their expenses are legitimate, and O'Neill does so because of her corporate experience. "It's a habit I have from a decade in the business world," she said.
O'Neill praised Board members as frugal spenders and said the staff is careful with taxpayer money. The current BOE, she said, keeps a tighter watch over reimbursements than have past boards.
In addition to finding fault with the Board's practice on receipts, Astrove believes the Board is violating its own official guidelines by not requiring members to fill out monthly expense forms that explain the business purpose of meals and travel costs.
In the BOE Operations Handbook, a section titled "Board Member Expense Standards" explains procedures for the processing of monthly expense accounts. "Expense forms should be submitted to the Board Office . . . Whenever possible, the expense form must be accompanied by appropriate receipts and phone bills."
Margolies acknowledged that "there's no expense form" except one specific to gasoline. The handbook's references to expense forms, Margolies said, are obsolete because Board members use a BOE-issued credit card to pay for their meals. "I believe that terminology predated credit cards," he said.
The handbook was last revised in April 1999, according to the BOE website. Felton said the Board's credit card has been in use at least since he became a Board member eight years ago.
Felton did not know why the handbook was not changed previously and said that the newly sworn-in Board might choose to update it. "The procedures in the handbook are no longer valid," he said. "The handbook needs to reflect the current practice."
Because of the BOE-issued credit card, Board members might not need to use expense forms, according to Phillips. Nevertheless, there must be documentation of the business purpose of a meal and the people who attended it, whether on an expense form or a receipt, he said.
Astrove is a friend of recently defeated BOE candidate Robyn Traywick and said he had no formal role in her campaign.
To see the rules governing Board members' expenditures in the BOE Operations Handbook, visit www.mcps.k12.md.us/boe/about/handbook2.shtm
Stephen Wertheim. Co-editor-in-chief Stephen Wertheim is deeply committed to reporting, even when it conflicts with such essential life activities as food consumption, sleep and viewership of Seinfeld reruns. In addition to getting carried away with writing and playing violin, Stephen thoroughly enjoys visiting and photographing spots around … More »