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Ch-a-a-rge It!
Mark Poutenis

Ch-a-a-rge It!

Joe Eggelletion is a man who likes his green.

He likes it well-cut and smooth, all laid out crisp and unsoiled. And he knows it feels really good when you can walk around like it's yours, like you own it. When the green is going Joe Eggelletion's way, he sometimes thinks he can get away with just about anything.

So it seemed to make sense that the Broward County commissioner would make his way to Woodlands Country Club, a Tamarac golfing oasis. Any player worth his handicap has putted around on it. And of all days to hit the links, a recent windless, sunny day was perfect. The tall, lean 53-year-old would look awfully sharp out there in the hip, Tiger Woods-inspired sportswear he's known to favor. Better yet, Josephus Eggelletion Jr. would be sinking one for the kids. The Boys and Girls Club had asked him to tee off to help raise money for the organization at its annual fundraiser.

The day before, during a phone call with New Times, he had said, "That's what I'm about. I come back to that very basic thing. It's giving back. I really believe that children are our future."

Great. We were working on a story that included the commissioner. That was fine with him. "My life is an open book," he said. "I love my family the most. I go to church. I love God, and I love what I do. I'm about as open a guy as they come."

If the commissioner loves his $80,000-per-year commission post and $58,000-per-year job in Broward County Schools Diversity Department, you have to wonder about his actions in recent months. In more than a dozen articles since March, the Sun-Sentinel and the Herald have described Eggelletion's spending of more than 2500 taxpayer dollars using a county credit card on golf games, expensive meals, music, and movies.

Though a recent recall effort sputtered, Eggelletion has done a distinctly ham-handed job at public relations. Not only has it been disclosed that he took paid sick leave from his county job to go on a trip to Brazil but the Sun-Sentinel recently described how he lobbied for a company (Waste Management) around the time he voted on contracts related to the firm.

He again showed his lack of public-relations acumen by backing out of the golf tournament after speaking with New Times. "Bad publicity" about his actions might affect the people he cared about the most, he said.

"I made a mistake," Eggelletion says. "I will admit that I should not have charged what I charged, but I think also that I was being made an example of." He declined to comment further.

A New Times investigation of county spending, however, has shown not only that Eggelletion's bookkeeping problems are deeper than previously thought but also that Broward County's accounting oversight system is plagued by miscommunication. Moreover, rules on credit-card use are haphazard and sometimes weakly enforced.

Documentation obtained by New Times details the abuse of county-issued cards by 26 public employees from June 18, 1999, to May 20, 2002. Some used their taxpayer-funded plastic to redecorate their offices. Others purchased unnecessary computer equipment. County credit cards were also employed to buy concert tickets, pay off late charges at Blockbuster Video, expense parking around the city, and buy hundreds of dollars in groceries at Publix supermarkets. One county employee even used his county credit card to pay off his personal-property tax bill.

Those employees apparently reimbursed the county for that money. Cards were revoked from all but were reinstated to eight employees last May.

"The idea was to give people more power to buy what they needed to buy to make their day run smoother," says Broward County Accounts Payable Manager Henry Bean. "It seemed ideal for people in, say, Parks and Recreation and the Public Works Department. If they needed a spark plug or something, they could just go get it without having to fill out forms beforehand explaining why they needed it.

"It didn't always work out that way," he admits.

It sounded like a good idea in the beginning: Cut down on paperwork. Make everyone's jobs easier. Simplify bookkeeping. So in 1999, Bean and Purchasing Director Glenn Cummings issued 700 county credit cards to directors of 76 county agencies. Those directors would then decide, on a case-by-case basis, who among their employees would get the plastic.

The cards were supposed to be used to buy office supplies or other items approved as necessary by a supervisor, who would then turn the receipt over to Bean by the end of each month. The system seemed long overdue for Broward County; Miami-Dade had been giving its employees credit cards for almost two decades.

Bean is a tall man. But as he speaks, sitting behind his wooden desk in his windowless office in the cavernous, musty Broward County Government Center, he is dwarfed by paperwork. The former private CPA, who went to work for the county five years ago, now says the credit-card program is the source of most of his job stress. Reviewing documentation that dates back to June 1999, the accounts payable manager says he has had his hands full trying to police abuse of the cards by sometimes-charge-happy county employees.

Three departments are supposed to oversee the cards' use: Bean's office, the purchasing department, and the auditing department. Directors of all three agree that the credit cards were introduced in January 1999, though there is no documentation to show when employees were first allowed to use them.

Cummings says he and his staff drafted a set of rules and regulations about the same time that would have prohibited county employees from buying anything that did not relate to county business. The purchasing agreement, which employees are required to sign, stipulates that receipts for all purchases must be turned in to a direct supervisor, who is then to pass on the receipts and other paperwork explaining need. Once the agreement is completed, employees have a green light to charge up to $250 each day. "Here and there, we had occasional misuse," Bean comments.

Cases of "occasional misuse" came predominantly from employees at Port Everglades. None of them would talk to New Times about the purchases. Port spokesperson Ellen Kennedy would say only, "This is an incident we understand happened a few years ago, and we've not had any cards revoked since."

On June 18, 1999, the first two cards were taken from assistant crane engineer Arnold De La Cruz and storekeeper Elizabeth Joyce. Billing documentation shows De La Cruz bought about $3800 worth of office furniture and tools. Joyce charged about $2600 in office furniture, including an executive leather chair priced at $400.

Almost a year later, on June 15, 2000, four port employees lost their cards because they "split" purchases that were apparently job-related, including phone installations. ("Splitting" means spreading the cost over more than one day for items exceeding the daily charge limit.) All together, 13 county employees tried to evade the no-split charging rule. It was relatively innocent. Most of their charges appear to be relevant to county business.

But others used their cards to make less defensible purchases. For example, Information Systems Manager Lydia Mokos charged hundreds of dollars for merchandise, including unnecessary computer equipment, at Radio Shack and other electronics stores.

Around the same time that port workers' cards were being pulled, Purchasing Director Cummings noticed something unusual on Office Manager Rickie Parker's card statement. Cummings wrote a memo to Public Communications Director Judy Sarver on June 14, 2001 requesting that Parker's card be revoked. "Mr. Parker has shown evidence of splitting purchases on more than one occasion," the memo stated. Parker allegedly couldn't explain why he charged more than $5000 to the county to buy items from IKON Office Solutions and various art and software supply stores.

Broward County Fire Rescue Capt. Gregory Holness purchased more than $1000 worth of merchandise at Ted's Sheds in Fort Lauderdale (which sells gazebos and storage buildings), about $80 at a fabric store, and $666 worth of groceries at Publix.

There were far more outlandish charges. According to county documents, on December 17, 2001, Alfredo Gonzalez, director of leisure sales and marketing at the Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, paid his personal-property tax bill, which came to $2235.86, with his county credit card. A copy of a personal check for that amount dated December 31, 2001, signed by Gonzalez to reimburse the county, is included in his accounting file. His card was revoked January 16, 2002.

Albert Tucker, vice president of multicultural business development for the tourism bureau, had his card pulled January 28, 2002, after he spent $1129 on what Bean's office classifies as "personal" items, including a rental car. In a memo written January 17, 2002, to a supervisor, Tucker explained that he used his card to procure hotel rooms for county clients. "While I felt these [purchases] might have been appropriate use of the card, I now realize it was incorrect management of the card."

Tucker tells New Times that the county didn't take his card but that he volunteered to give it back. He blames miscommunication between himself and Bean's office. "We are in the tourism area, so we bring clients in all the time," he says. "They come in for a visit, and we pay for that. I've secured rooms for five clients before with the county credit card, and during those times, my card wasn't processed. It was only used as a hold. This time, it was processed. It was legitimate."

He rented the car, he says, to "ensure his availability" to clients because his own vehicle was in the shop.

Despite his claim that he did nothing wrong, Tucker says it "wasn't worth the aggravation" of keeping the county card. He paid back the money for the rental car. "I knew there were other people around using their card for whatever and if it even looked like I did, that was going to turn out bad," he says. "But sometimes, we're in a position where we have to use that card for business. If I have to secure a room for someone, what else can I do?"

Unlike the credit-card pilot program that Bean outlined to New Times, not only did directors of county agencies receive cards but lower-level county employees had them too. At the end of the pilot year in 1999, the county performed an audit, Bean says. "Based on that, we felt we should go forward by expanding the program, giving directors of different departments more freedom." Lower-level employees obtained cards at the discretion of their supervisors.

Facilities Management Parking Manager Ed Davis racked up a $440 hotel bill. According to a February 11, 2002, interoffice memo written by Assistant Director of Purchasing Walter Pryor, Davis disputed this charge, claiming that he had paid the hotel bill in cash and was "surprised" that the hotel had processed the county card. Davis had no receipt to support his claim, so he wrote a personal check for $440 to the county on December 28, 2001. It bounced January 14, 2002. Davis blamed his bank. The county corresponded with his banker to get a postal check to cover the charge. Davis, of course, surrendered his card.

Painter Michael Hernan bought concert tickets worth $16 before his card was taken. Hernan wrote a personal check and letter of apology to the county.

Finally, Parks and Recreation Manager Gwen Stanley paid off her $8 late fees at Blockbuster, Libraries Manager Annie Williams made unauthorized phone calls, and Environmental Services secretary Adele Rosamilia rented movies. All lost their cards.

Bean says that if supervisors don't immediately report inappropriate charges to his office, there's little more he can do than take away their cards. But some people who lost their cards have gotten them back. Of the seven port employees who abused or broke the rules governing their cards, four have had theirs reinstated, including De La Cruz, Joyce, and Mokos. In all, eight cards were reinstated last month. "We didn't think we should ban the cards from them completely," Bean explains. "I will be monitoring their card activity." Bean pauses, as if he knows that that reasoning might not calm taxpayers if they knew thousands of their dollars were used to decorate a bureaucrat's office.

"All of the merchandise was returned to the stores," he offers. The accounts-payable manager says those who have had their cards reissued went through a "how-to" training session emphasizing the prohibition of splitting charges. "What we're doing is giving them a second chance," Bean says. "If we find any abuse, they won't get the card anymore in the future."

He concludes: "I think we still have a very good system in place. These people are not the norm."

Norm Thabit's office looks like Henry Bean's, windowless and cubicle-gray. The County Commission auditor for 22 years is a cheerful, soft-spoken man. He agreed to an interview with New Times to discuss Commissioner Eggelletion's credit-card expenditures. This was new territory for the auditor, who says he didn't know commissioners had county plastic until he read newspaper reports about Eggelletion's bizarre spending habits.

"I assumed Henry knew about it," Thabit says, shrugging. "I've never seen this kind of public spending for private use."

Documentation from Bean and Thabit shows how busy one little credit card can be:

On April 26, 2001, Eggelletion made three purchases totaling about $175 at the Doral Resort and Golf Pro Shop. It's unknown what he bought. That day and the next, he charged $356.34 and $108.93 for "telephone calls," according to county documentation. Also on the 26th, he charged $140.44 for the use of the resort's golf course.

On May 19, 2001, the commissioner racked up a $462.16 bill for golfing at the Trump International Golf Club, the Donald's newest luxury spot, in Palm Beach. Eggelletion also charged $53.96 at Ichiban, a Japanese restaurant in Boca Raton, $46.58 at Borders Books and Music, (for which Bean says Eggelletion could not produce a receipt), $30.33 at Wal-Mart, and $27.38 at Blockbuster, a favorite movie rental chain for the commissioner, who handed the county plastic to a video clerk again two months later.

Most of the commissioner's charges are for travel and hotels, including a July 19, 2001, Marriott bill for $1229.89. The most expensive single charge Eggelletion made in almost two and a half years was $1355 on January 18, 2002, to Brazilian TAM airlines (the county business trip for which his absence was counted as payable sick leave from Broward County Schools). He stayed in the Amazon River port city of Manaus at a luxury hotel that features private pools in some of the rooms.

In June 2001, Eggelletion used taxpayer dollars to travel to Acapulco to attend the Mexican Film Festival. When he returned, he defended the trip by saying that the film festival had agreed to move to South Florida. Not Broward County, though, but Miami.

In addition to Eggelletion's trips to Brazil and Mexico, county records provided by Bean indicate that the commissioner charged expenses on his county credit card during a trip to Puerto Rico, claiming that the February 2002 jaunt was an effort to bring business from the island to Broward.

The agenda for the conference, contained in Eggelletion's financial file provided by Bean, indicates that the event was sponsored in part by the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. It consisted of a tour of a Bacardi rum factory and two cocktail parties, among other things.

The most symbolic purchase Eggelletion has made might be the $659 leather laptop attaché case he bought at Bally's. Call it the commissioner's blue dress.

Thabit tells New Times that he sat down with the commissioner to discuss the case. "I asked him to justify the case, and he said he needed it for work," Thabit said. "So I excused that." Thabit also approved a "Day Dater" (a battery-powered organizer) that Eggelletion bought with his county card.

"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.

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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