Ch-a-a-rge It!

You thought there was a problem with Broward credit cards? Get this.

"As for the rest, I don't think he had anything criminal in mind," Thabit says. "Actually, I can't tell you what he was thinking. Personal items charged to the county isn't allowed, period." Thabit might be sure of Eggelletion's repentance, but no one knows for certain how many charges the commissioner made. Thabit wrote in a March 8, 2002, memo to the Board of County Commissioners that Eggelletion had spent $13,904.78. That figure doesn't agree with Bean's records, which indicate the commissioner charged $12,481.84. Also, Thabit's memo contends that Eggelletion reimbursed the county for $401.96 for phone calls, $885.81 for golf, $344.70 for meals, $683.91 for travel, and personal items of $308.07. Then the county revoked his card.

After their colleague's charges made headlines, Broward County commissioners tried to make a statement. They gave up their cards too.

Mark Poutenis
Mark Poutenis

This appeared to be a positive gesture. There was one thing much of the public didn't know: The commissioners' aides kept their cards.

"We wanted to show our constituents that this was something that was not OK," Commissioner Ilene Lieberman says. "Our aides do have the cards, but they are only allowed, I think, to buy office supplies."

First elected in 1996, Lieberman doesn't buy Thabit's claim that he was ignorant of the commissioners' credit-card use. "I think Norm is an honest guy, OK, so it's whatever he says. But I've heard this excuse -- that commissioners who are new... don't know what's acceptable," she says. "It's really simple: I don't think the voters should have to entertain me."

Lieberman says she has always charged office expenses on her personal credit card. At the end of the month, the county reimburses her. Indeed, accounting documents show that from the start of the credit card-program to now, Lieberman has used the card only once, spending $90.08 for office supplies.

Like other county employees, commissioners had to read and sign a purchasing agreement provided by Cummings's office before receiving a card.

But the agreement, which lists vague guidelines instructing that the card be used for county business only, was given to the commissioners in December 2000, which was almost a year after the commissioners were using the cards.

Kristin Jacobs, elected commissioner in 1998, signed the agreement in 2000. She thinks the guidelines aren't enough to determine what she can charge. "C'mon, you can't say that we've ever been given a list of what's acceptable," she says. "There's a lot of gray area."

Last year, Jacobs used her county credit card to buy $407 worth of holiday cards. She reasoned that because the cards were going to her constituents, she could use her county credit card. "When Joe's stuff happened, I went to Norm and asked, 'Have I done anything wrong?' and the answer from Norm was no," Jacobs tells New Times.

She then requested an opinion from county attorney Edward Dion. "[His] answer was frustrating, because he looked at these supposed guidelines and said, 'I can't tell you the cards are wrong, because they are not specifically defined as wrong here.'

"I went to them for advice and got nothing concrete," complains Jacobs. "So what you end up doing is shrugging your shoulders and saying, 'I'm OK, I guess.'"

County records show that between 1999 and May 3, 2002, Jacobs and her aide, Susan Olson, charged about $3000 in travel (to places like Tallahassee) for county business and office supply expenses -- nowhere near the amount Eggelletion spent.

An hour after New Times interviewed Jacobs, she called Thabit. New Times happened to be in the auditor's office, interviewing him. At the beginning of the conversation, Thabit told her, "Holiday cards is not something we do."

Then Thabit backpedaled like a parent intimidated by an unruly teenager. Speaking in a sympathetic tone, he said he understood how Jacobs might think buying the cards was a justifiable charge. Before the conversation was over, Thabit told her there was no need to reimburse the county $407 unless the county attorney advised her to do so.

After Thabit hung up, he said, "I have to admit, it's hard for my staff sometimes to stand up and say to an elected official that they can't do something or they're doing something wrong. It's even hard for me at times."

Thabit was also persuaded to let County Commissioner Ben Graber buy a television and VCR. "There was a complaint that he couldn't watch 9/11 nonstop when that was happening," he says.

The auditor was unaware that Janice Tuzzio, an aide to commissioner Lori Parrish, had purchased 60 picture frames for $792 on December 4, 2001, and 100 frames for $1320 a month and a half later. But when New Times informed him, he replied, "I'm sure that's fine. You don't buy all that and not have some reason to use it as part of county business."

In late May, Thabit introduced a policy dictating how the cards can be used. All purchases aides make over $100 must be preapproved by him. With few exceptions, purchases must be for necessary, county-related travel or office supplies. Thabit says that small purchases for commissioners' offices are justifiable. "Commissioners have every right for their offices to look nice," he adds. "We aren't going to tell them that they don't have a right to be comfortable."

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