Gwinnett ex-commissioner’s expenses dwarfed his colleagues’

Former Gwinnett Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, who left office in January after two terms, spent more from his expense account than the eight other county commissioners with whom he served combined, an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

Beaudreau never exceeded his $5,000 annual limit on expenses. But he routinely failed to disclose with whom he was eating meals, how his mileage involved county business or how those gatherings benefited Gwinnett taxpayers. The AJC also located several people who ate meals with Beaudreau who said their meetings had nothing to do with county business.

County staff not only failed to flag Beaudreau’s expenses but can’t produce any evidence that it made any attempts to require Beaudreau or other commissioners to disclose the proper information.

Beaudreau, in a phone interview, said the main reason he incurred more expenses than all the other commissioners was that he attended more meetings and events than they did.

“A lot of the other commissioners didn’t go to a lot of the activities that I did,” he said. “Many times, I was the only commissioner there.”

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Charlotte Nash, chairwoman of the Gwinnett commission, said in an email that the county’s oversight of expenses “works well overall” but that commissioners might need a refresher.

“I believe that we may need to reinforce to elected officials their personal responsibility for their expenditures, as well as provide training to them,” Nash wrote. “In my experience, most elected officials comply with the major aspects of the expenditure policy even if they do not meet every single detailed requirement.”

Outspending all others

Beaudreau spent $22,797 from his expense account during his eight years in office, according to financial data obtained by the AJC. All other commissioners who served during that time spent a total of $15,936.

Of all the commissioners, Beaudreau had the highest yearly spending totals in all but one of those years.

Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter on Thursday told the AJC that he has begun investigating Beaudreau’s expense accounting. Beaudreau lost his bid for a third term last year by a narrow margin.

He initially disputed that he spent more money than all other commissioners combined. When told that the AJC analyzed commissioners’ expense account records, however, Beaudreau noted that the $22,797 was just over half of what he could have spent over that time.

“Out of the $40,000 in allowable expenses, I spent just over half of that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed about.”

Beaudreau got reimbursed for $3,827 in meals during his two terms. He described those meals as almost unavoidable.

“A lot of times, that was the only time we could manage to schedule both of our calendars to be open – was to grab lunch,” Beaudreau said.

He rarely disclosed his meal companions or whether he had a county-related purpose for the meals, even after the county began requiring that information in 2009.

To learn more about those meetings, the newspaper obtained Beaudreau’s work calendar for all eight years in office. The calendar often revealed nothing, but sometimes it had full names.

By contacting those people, the AJC has found that, in some instances, Beaudreau expensed meals that involved no county business.

For example, Beaudreau ate at a Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in Duluth on Oct. 5, 2009, with David Hancock, a software engineer from Suwanee. Hancock said he is surprised that the commissioner expensed their lunch meeting because “it wasn’t at all about (county) business.”

“I don’t see any reason taxpayers should have paid for that,” he said. “He invited me … and it was just, `Hey can we get together?’ I went and we just got caught up. It was mainly just chit chat. I assumed that if he said he was going to pay, that he’d pay for it personally. If I had known that the county would pay, I would have bought my own.”

For that meal, taxpayers paid $16.78 for two “lunch combos.”

Beaudreau said his purpose for meeting Hancock was to find out where he was getting erroneous information about county government that Hancock was distributing to the public.

On Feb. 15, 2008, Beaudreau was scheduled to meet with Steven Lolli at “sweet toms,” according to his calendar.

Reached by phone last week, Lolli said he is a friend of Beaudreau’s. Asked about the meal, Lolli said it had nothing to do with county business.

“It would have been of a personal nature,” he said. “I’ve known him for a while. … If it was anything, I know it was a friendship lunch. I probably hadn’t talked to him in a while, and I was just catching up with him.”

That meal cost taxpayers $16.51.

Beaudreau confirmed Lolli was a friend, but said Lolli contacted him to discuss how the county invested its 401k and pension funds. He also said Lolli had some “concerns” about the Grayson community where he lives.

The AJC found other questionable food expenses, including a Saturday night meal at Sweet Tomatoes for four people on the same weekend in which the commissioner’s calendar says his parents were in town. Two of those entrees received “senior” discounts.

Beaudreau said he might have submitted that receipt in error.

“I would be wondering if I turned in the right receipt on that one,” he said.

Mileage to foot races

The bulk of Beaudreau’s expenses were for mileage. He got reimbursed $15,960 for mileage during his two terms, averaging about $2,000 per year.

A review of Beaudreau’s mileage reimbursement documents shows that he frequently did not explain the specific business purpose of the gatherings, events and meals he attended.

A sampling of the limited information Beaudreau provided for individual trips: “Moreland Lunch,” “Lunch Cornell,” “lunch @ sweet tomatoes,” “lunch 1818,” “Orr Lunch,” and “Mccrays.”

The AJC found 20 instances in which Beaudreau, an avid runner who said he is running in the upcoming Boston Marathon, was reimbursed for attending races.

When asked why he believed the taxpayer should cover his mileage to and from those races, Beaudreau said: “If it’s a community thing, where I’ve either been asked to be there or I’m kind of expected to be there, that’s the duty of a commissioner – to be at community events.”

The newspaper also found that Beaudreau got reimbursed for driving to several Christmas parties held by businesses that he described as vendors for the county.

Beaudreau said he attended those parties for “vendor relations,” to thank the vendors for their work.

‘That’s news to me’

The AJC asked the county’s treasury division, which oversees employee expenses, for evidence that its staff tried to get commissioners to file their expenses properly — from disclosing the required information to filing expenses on time. The county produced nothing.

The treasury division is also supposed to perform “periodic audits” of expense filings but said it “has not performed audits on any commissioners or employees.”

Paul Turner, who has led the division since February 2012, would not grant an interview with the AJC about his division’s oversight.

A review of Gwinnett policies that pertain to expenses revealed numerous provisions that Beaudreau and other commissioners appear to have violated: commissioners and other employees generally can’t charge taxpayers for lunches with fellow employees, including appointed and elected officials; they have caps on how much they can spend on local meals; and they’re supposed to file expenses within 14 days.

Beaudreau said he did not know about those provisions.

“That’s news to me,” he said of the provision regarding meals with fellow employees or officials. “Until you brought it to my attention, I wasn’t aware of it.”

The county’s expense policies are complicated and at times ambiguous.

Gwinnett has three policies related to meal or mileage reimbursements, including two versions of the same travel policy, one of which was created in 2011 when the county began using a different computer system for expenses. One policy requires commissioners to disclose who they met with for meals and the purpose of the meeting; the other makes no mention of those requirements.

When asked which travel policy Beaudreau or other commissioners had to follow, county spokesman Joe Sorenson said it depends on which employee processes the commissioners’ expense submissions.

Tucked into its travel policy, the county also offers commissioners a loophole, stating that they can sidestep policy requirements for “individual expenditures” if they sign an exemption document.

The AJC found one such document in Beaudreau’s expense files. Instead of applying to a single expenditure, though, the form covered six months worth of meals and mileage in 2010, totaling $1,269.

In an odd twist, Beaudreau said he does not think he signed that document.

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