San Bernardino County officials defend edited credit-card records

San Bernardino County supervisors in the past two years charged more than $55,000 to their county-issued credit cards, mostly for meals, hotels and travel to conferences, records released Wednesday show.

While many of the charges appear to be for legitimate county business, the justification for others is unclear.

The county's lawyers redacted large portions of documents, hiding from public view exactly how supervisors spent tax dollars and raising concerns among open government experts.

"A credit card will work just as easy for a legitimate travel expense as it does for a personal perk," said Tracy Westin of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based watchdog group.

"It takes human oversight. If it is not visible to the public, there is no way to check to make sure those expenditures are proper," Westin said.

Abuse of government credit cards has been suspected elsewhere in the Inland area. Former Colton city councilman Ramon Hernandez pleaded not guilty to charges of misusing a city credit card. He is expected to go on trial in January.

The Press-Enterprise requested the credit-card documents July 18. The county took nearly four months to compile and release the records that cover purchases for fiscal years 2006 and 2007.

Four messages left Wednesday with County Counsel Ruth Stringer and Principal Assistant County Counsel Dan Haueter were not returned.

Previously, Haueter said some information likely would be blacked out, citing a state court decision that defined "deliberative process." It says elected officials should be able to meet with some people without having to reveal their identities.

The exemption is not specifically part of the Public Records Act.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Paul Biane said the redactions are appropriate.

"It is important for the integrity of the process for me to meet with people," he said in a telephone interview. "It is part of the deliberative process."

But Terry Francke of Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group, said the county has taken too broad a view of the exemption.

"The use of the term deliberative process in this context is mistaken at best and perhaps fraudulent at worst," he said.

Westin said the county should explain the redactions.

"There needs to be some review process so members of the public can ensure their money is not being wasted."

Checks and Balances

Biane said the county has the proper oversight, citing reviews by staff and the auditor/controller-recorders office, which routinely seeks more information to justify the expenses.

"There are checks and balances in place to catch any abuse," he said by telephone Wednesday.

A call to the auditors office was not returned.

In part, the documents released show:

Biane had more than $12,600 in charges in the two years. As the county's representative to the California State Association of Counties, Biane regularly booked airfare and lodging on his credit card.

Other purchases include $178.95 for three pairs of binoculars, and $129.99 for home Internet service.

Biane said the charge for satellite Internet service is justified, since he moved to an area in northern Rancho Cucamonga that has no other form of high-speed Internet access, such as cable or digital subscriber lines.

"Our jobs are 24-7," he said. "I have to have access to Internet with the ability to handle big files such as pictures and maps."

Supervisor Josie Gonzales had more than $20,000 in charges to her credit card and at least one other assigned to her office. Most were for travel to conferences such as the International Council of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas and to view development around a racetrack in Kansas City. The track is owned by the parent company of the California Speedway in Fontana.

The county counsel's office redacted some charges from the documents. But Bob Page, her chief of staff, said the charges were for Gonzales staff member Chris Mardis to attend a Local Government Commission conference held in Yosemite National Park. The officials stayed at the Ahwahnee Hotel, he said.

In October 2006, Gonzales, Biane, Page and his wife, and another person had two dinners totaling $342.55, but county counsel redacted the fifth person's name. Page said Scott Vanhorne, a Biane staff member, attended the dinner. Page reimbursed the county for his wife's portion of the meal.

"We don't have people walking around with cards making willy-nilly charges," Page said. "We recognize this is taxpayer money and we should spend it wisely."

Supervisor Gary Ovitt charged more than $11,500 on his county credit card, while Supervisors Dennis Hansberger and Brad Mitzelfelt, in office since January, spent about $500 and $800, respectively.

The three did not return messages seeking comment.

Bill Postmus, who took office as county assessor in January after serving as a supervisor from 2000 to 2006, had more than $11,000 in charges. Much of Postmus' charges were for meals, but the reasons for the purchases and those who dined with him were redacted.

Spokesman Adam Aleman said Postmus repaid $195.38 for gas purchases in Nevada, Utah and Colorado that he made during a personal trip in June 2006.

As a supervisor, Postmus also signed off on credit-card purchases not assigned to specific supervisors. For instance, a card with the holder's name redacted had $2,200 in charges in September 2006. The purchases included dinner at two Chicago restaurants during a National Association of Counties meeting. One was a $343 dinner at Morton's Steakhouse.

Reach Duane W. Gang at 951-368-9547 or dgang@PE.com