Elite Status: County Official Earns Travel Rewards with Public Money

Multiple sources within the Santa Clara Department of Child Support Services believe that the man in charge is using his position of power for personal gain.

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovered documents that show Child Support Services Director John Vartanian is racking up travel and credit card rewards using public money. Now, the county is investigating Vartanian’s travel records.

The documents show that Vartanian has put more than $55,000 in hotel costs and registration fees on his personal credit card since 2008. By adding his personal Hyatt and Hilton rewards numbers, he’s able to rack up travel points for everyone’s travel. The records indicate he has put the travel of at least 30 other employees on his personal card, even for trips to conferences that he didn’t even attend.

“The public’s tax dollars are being used so John Vartanian can go on vacation,” said Valerie Yates, who spent 25 years in the Department of Child Services before retiring in 2010. “This is conscious, deliberately done, knowing he is somehow benefitting not only from his travel, but all the rest of us traveling.”

Reporter Jenna Susko and Producer Julie Putnam sort through thousands of records showing how John Vartanian used public money to gain personal travel rewards.

Yates discovered Vartanian’s practice when checking into a hotel for a work conference. The front desk told her that John Vartanian’s name was on the room reservation. “That’s how I found out he was doing this,” she said. “I contacted human resources and I have never heard back from them again.”

Santa Clara County policy states that employees may use their own credit cards if they don’t have a county-issued card. But the records show Vartanian even paid for those who had county-issued cards. Moreover, county policy clearly disallows earning personal travel benefits with public money:

“Frequent flyer credits earned by county employees for travel on County business should be applied toward future county travel. Please note that personal use of airline frequent flyer mileage credit earned on County business is a taxable fringe benefit to the employee pursuant to the IRS regulations, and County has no intention to provide such fringe benefits.”

John Vartanian has been employed with the county for 13 years. After spending eight years as the Chief Attorney, he was appointed Director by the Board of Supervisors last year. The Investigative Unit asked to speak with Vartanian, but he declined, citing the ongoing investigation into his spending records.

The Investigative Unit showed the documents to Jon Coupal, President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "I think from a taxpayer perspective, people are going to look at this and have raised eyebrows," he said. "You don't want a situation where someone is incentivized to misuse taxpayer dollars. And that's clearly the situation here."

"There are conferences where he goes and attends one event, but he is there to check all the participants or registrants into the rooms,” said one Department of Child Support Services employee, who didn’t want to be identified out of fear of retaliation. “I think the frustration level is so high at this point and the morale at the office is so low, I think it just comes down to the fact that it’s not right. It’s just not right.”

Another told us, “A department head shouldn’t be engaged in this type of activity. It makes me upset.”

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President, Mike Wasserman, sent the Investigative Unit this statement:

“We are aware of allegations involving non-compliance with the county’s reimbursement policies. We are investigating whether there has been any violation of county policy. Because this is a personnel matter, we are not able to elaborate.”

Contact Us