DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, a crusader for cutting government spending, has rung up thousands of dollars in personal purchases on her county Visa card.
The purchases include airline tickets bought during times the commissioner and her husband were having financial problems, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
She reimbursed the county for many of the expenses within days, weeks or months. Some said that is tantamount to using taxpayer money as a bank for bridge loans.
She didn’t repay 11 purchases totaling more than $2,600 until the AJC filed an open records request for the receipts — more than a year after the county paid some of those expenses. She simultaneously turned in a separate payment for another $1,440 in airline and rental car expenses that she put on her card since New Year’s Eve.
And she might have more to repay. She conceded that DeKalb County has been paying hundreds of dollars a month in bills covering her two cellphones, which she uses for both personal and county business.
No one with the county government has been monitoring her spending because, under DeKalb’s current structure, commissioners run their offices autonomously. They can run up thousands of dollars on their Visa cards and answer to no one but themselves.
Their "P-cards,” or purchasing cards, function like debit cards, drawing money directly out of a county account.
Boyer, a Republican who is the commission’s longest serving member, could not provide receipts for more than 70 transactions that the AJC questioned in spot checks of her Visa purchases in 2012 and 2013. She says she lost them.
She denies using the county to float her own travel costs, attributing her pattern of personal charges to sloppy record keeping and turnover among staffers who help her keep up with her own spending. She said she could not explain why she has repeatedly pulled out her county Visa card to pay for flight tickets, rental car charges and a ski resort stay, all of which had nothing to do with county business.
“I don’t have a reason,” Boyer said. “I’ve never had any intent of doing anything (wrong). I have been totally honest and trying to be transparent in returning the funds.
“I will advocate a stronger policy,” she said, “and I won’t let it happen again.”
But legal experts say using a government expense card for personal purchases could be a crime.
“It doesn’t look good, put it that way,” Byung J. Pak, a former federal prosecutor and a white-collar criminal defense attorney, said. “At the very least, it’s a breach of fiduciary duty by an elected official. At worst, it could be criminal.”
County records show Boyer signed an agreement that stipulated the cards could not be used for personal purchases and that such misuse could result in civil action or criminal prosecution.
Her signature is also on an agreement to maintain a file of all receipts.
“I don’t believe that I actually read it,” the commissioner said. “But when my assistants hand me stuff … Unfortunately, there’s a few things like that that happen.”
A Dacula city councilman was charged with theft by taking earlier this month for allegedly running up thousands of dollars in personal charges on his city credit card. Criminal law experts said repeated reimbursements would make a criminal case more complicated, with the question ultimately boiling down to whether the public official intentionally took public money for personal use.
Told of the AJC’s findings, DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James said he needs to see documents before deciding whether to investigate.
“I wouldn’t call it an investigation,” James said, “but it’s something that I definitely need to look at.”
Pattern of misuse
Boyer’s Visa card misuse has been going on for years, made possible by DeKalb’s lack of oversight over elected officials’ spending. The AJC examined about two years’ worth of records and found that at least six times she or her husband have repaid the county for expenses put on her county card. In other instances, she paid for multiple airline tickets at the same time.
But none of that raised red flags because the only person monitoring Boyer’s spending is Boyer.
Elected officials function as their own department heads, and each department oversees its own receipt files and ensures charges are legitimate, according to spokesman Burke Brennan. The county has a purchasing card policy that forbids personal usage, and records show Boyer signed a statement agreeing to abide by that policy.
But Brennan said the policy doesn’t apply to commissioners, only employees who fall under the chief executive officer. Boyer said she will now seek to change that.
“There is no process or procedures that I violated,” she said. “And no one pointed it out to me. I would be happy to change my ways, and I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.”
But someone brought problems to her attention years ago — an internal auditor. Commissioners had their own P-card usage examined by the DeKalb Finance Department in 2010 and in 2011.
Boyer’s office was one of three cited for being out of compliance with county policy. Her 2011 deficiencies including having only 12 receipts out of 50 transactions.
“Adequate documentation ensures that expenditures incurred are in compliance with the P-Card policy,” the audit states.
Boyer said she tried to do better after that audit, but also said of receipts, “I’m sorry, I just don’t keep them.”
She said her card habits have nothing to do with personal financial issues reflected in federal court records, which show she and her husband have each filed twice for bankruptcy in the past three years. However, they did not complete the filings and their bankruptcy petitions were dismissed each time.
The commissioner said there has been no bankruptcy and she wasn’t turning to her P-card for luxuries she couldn’t afford.
“You are trying to create a picture that I am not going to agree to,” she said. “You are trying to spin it that I had intent. I had no intent.
“I will confess to sloppy procedures,” she said. “I will confess that we don’t have a uniform policy for P-card use, and I would be more than happy to comply and promote one.”
A bankruptcy attorney said the Boyers appear to have been using the bankruptcy filings as a legal tactic to stall foreclosure on their home near Stone Mountain.
Scott Riddle, who wasn’t involved in the cases but examined public records for the AJC, pointed to the commissioner’s Sept. 3, 2012, filing. Foreclosure day was Sept. 4.
“The original petition was a ‘skeletal petition,’ which means it was the bare minimum paperwork to start a (bankruptcy) case,” Riddle wrote in an email.
Skeletal petitions often are used to halt the foreclosure process, buying more time for the owners. Then the bankruptcy cases are dropped, as happened with the Boyers.
Up, up and away
Despite any financial challenges, Boyer and her family members continued to fly, with help from DeKalb County.
In the summer of 2012, Boyer spent $800 of taxpayer money on two flights to Phoenix, one for her and one for her daughter. She said she went there on behalf of DeKalb firefighters to look into problems with Draeger Safety air packs, which both Phoenix and DeKalb firefighters claimed were malfunctioning.
Boyer said she didn’t want to travel alone. But she didn’t reimburse the $400 for her daughter’s flight until earlier this month, after the AJC requested the receipts.
Later that year, she returned to Phoenix for what she described as a vacation. She charged the county $513 for a rental car, but didn’t pay that back either until the AJC began asking questions.
Even though in 2011 she questioned why commissioners spent money traveling to a National Association of Counties conference in Washington, D.C., in 2013 Boyer attended a NACO conference in Fort Worth, Texas. She used her P-card to pay for $730 in airline tickets that she said were for her husband and two daughters. She repaid the county two and a half months later.
She later used the card to pay thousands of dollars in advance costs for a trip to two Colorado ski resorts in December.
In September, she purchased $1,000 in airline tickets for one of her daughters and two people she identified as young men and personal friends. She then spent $1,400 on a condominium booking in October. And she spent more than $1,300 in Denver at Dollar Rent A Car.
She reimbursed the county for those charges in December.
But she racked up another $735 in rental car charges that month that she hadn’t paid back until the AJC asked questions. She said she had been in a car accident and needed to drive while her car was being repaired.
In two March 13 memos to the county, Boyer listed personal purchases and enclosed checks that her husband signed. Another check from her husband, turned in with another March 13 memo, paid back purchases ranging from Dec. 31 to Feb. 3, beyond the time frame covered by the newspaper’s inquiry.
Still more questions
The newspaper also questioned why Boyer has been using her P-card to pay T-Mobile phone bills, including a $303 bill in May, a $248 bill in September and a $488 bill in November.
The commissioner said she doesn’t know why the bills are so high and that they pay for two phones that she uses. Public officials often have two phones, one for themselves that they pay for, and one for official business that their government provides.
But Boyer said she does not have a personal cellphone, so she will consider paying back the county.
“It’s hard to interact between personal and business, because we get calls all day long about everything,” she said.
As for why so many restaurant purchases were on her and her top aide’s P-cards — an average of two meals a week in 2012 and nearly three a week in 2013 — Boyer said all were for meals with constituents. “We’re either having coffee or we’re talking to constituents. We spend a lot of time out in the field,” she said Thursday.
The 2011 audit had cited the number of food purchases as a deficiency. “All P-Card transactions should be limited to business-related goods and services, and efforts should be made to reduce the frequent use of the P-Card at restaurants,” the auditor wrote. “This was also mentioned in our last P-Card audit report, dated April 2, 2010.”
Boyer, 57, was first elected in 1992 to represent District 1, which includes Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Tucker and Smoke Rise, where she lives.
Linda Smith, chairwoman of the DeKalb County Republican Party, said she would be surprised if Boyer misused public funds. “It would not seem in fitting with who she is, how she governs and what she believes in, both publicly and privately,” she said.
Viola Davis, who leads the DeKalb Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter group, called Boyer’s Visa card use disappointing.
“There should be some integrity, some ethics, transparency there,” Davis said. “And we trust them that they’re going to do that, and over and over again we keep seeing them violate that trust.”