Audit Finds Violations of Travel Expense Rules by San Jose City Employees

A review of the city of San Jose's travel expenses found that some employees ran up unnecessary charges, including cash advances, mileage, rental cars and hotels, but the violations were not serious, a city auditor said.

City Auditor Sharon Erickson, who examined a sample of 300 city travel files from fiscal years 2012 to 2013, reported finding "many trips with activity that appeared to be more costly than necessary and reasonable."

Erickson presented the findings of her 65-page audit today to the City Council at its meeting at City Hall and provided a list of recommendations to the city manager's office to ensure that departments follow employee travel policies.

"It's really a series of minor violations," Erickson said prior to the council meeting. "We didn't find a systematic abuse of the system."

David Vossbrink, a city spokesman, said that due to a high turnover of city employees in recent years, travel expense procedures are not as well known in city departments as they once were.

Erickson's audit would be used to "bring us back in compliance or change policies," Vossbrink said. "She's calling attention to areas that need tightening up."

Erickson reported that for the 2012-2013 fiscal year alone, the city incurred $240,000 in travel expenses within Santa Clara County, $213,000 within the state and $377,000 for out-of-state travel.

The top-spending departments, which charged up 58 percent of city travel bills during 2012-2013, were the San Jose Police Department, the offices of Mayor Chuck Reed and the City Council, and the airport and environmental services departments, according to the audit.

For the audit period, covering fiscal years 2012 to 2013, the minor violations of city travel policy included late reconciliation of cash advances of city funds by employees, according to Erickson.

In one example, an employee of the Police Department advanced herself $12,803 in city money over eight months to pay for hotel rooms for herself and co-workers during in-state training sessions, according to Erickson.

The police employee then used her personal credit card to pay for the hotel rooms, but since the cash advances exceeded the room expenses, the city started deducting the unused amounts from her paycheck while the employee still continued to reap cash advances of up to $2,046.

"SJPD staff have since acknowledged that this booking of group hotel rooms on a personal credit card, paid with a series of cash advances, and payroll deductions, did not reflect best practice," Erickson reported in the audit.

In another cash advance case, an employee who withdrew $3,900 from the city in July 2012 still had not paid it back as of last October, Erickson said.

Erickson also cited "numerous" instances of employees driving from San Jose to other cities to obtain the city-approved reimbursement rate of 56.5 cents per mile when it would have been cheaper to fly.

In one example, a city department had employees drive 21 trips to training sessions in Newport Beach in Orange County, which is 380 miles from San Jose but only five miles from John Wayne Airport, and each trip cost the city almost $200 more than airfare.

One employee received a $515 reimbursement for driving to Palm Springs and back while another employee who traveled by air cost the city only $238 in round trip airfare and parking fees, Erickson said.

In September 2012, 22 employees sought mileage reimbursements totaling $2,277 for a 200-mile round trip to a training near Modesto instead of carpooling, she reported.

Some employees abused their city procurement cards, similar to charge cards, including one who charged the city $4,444 for in-state travel not listed on their department's travel documents, according to the audit.

Two other employees used the city cards to accumulate a bill of $26,000, including $4,100 for limousines, taxis and parking at San Francisco International Airport, and for side trips to New York when they were approved only to travel to Washington, D.C., the audit revealed.

Other times, city employees racked up charges while renting cars without pre-approval from the city as required by travel policy, such as one worker who flew to San Diego and stayed at a hotel two miles from the airport, but rented a car, drove 439 miles with no explanation and charged the city $393 in rental fees and $274 for parking and fuel, Erickson

Some charges for hotel stays by employees were not in compliance with city travel policy that requires workers to drive and not stay at a hotel unless the destination is at least 75 miles from San Jose City Hall or the worker's home.

One employee charged $822 to stay at a hotel in Daly City during a four-day conference in San Francisco, about $580 more than if the person had driven to the meetings and put in for mileage, Erickson reported.

Several city employees accepted free or discounted trips that were funded by third parties, including industry, professional and non-profit groups, listed as "complimentary" or as "scholarships" when city policy prohibits the acceptance of "favors of any kind" that might be seen as attempts to influence city business, according to Erickson.

A San Jose employee had the city pay $495 to attend an event for which he had registered as a representative of his own business, not the city, Erickson said in her report.

One of Erickson's recommendations to city administrators, based on the audit's findings, is that cash advances be used only for out-of-pocket expenses like meals and not for expenses such as hotel rooms that can be easily charged to procurement cards.

Erickson's recommendations also included having department heads follow up on the cases of non-compliance with travel policy uncovered in her audit, set up travel policy training for city department travel coordinators, call for coordinators to report cases of non-compliance to the city, retain travel records and require employees to break down costs of "all expenses paid," or bundled trips.

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