Thursday, December 11, 2008

Money Scandal Hits City Board of Elections Over Expenses and Raises by Tina Moore and Greg B. Smith With Benjamin Lesser

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Hudson Valley Resort & Spa New York, where Board of Elections Commissioner James Sampel put in for a "deep tissue massage" at taxpayer expense.

The city's elections commissioners won approval for a big fat pay raise last year, after swearing they needed extra cash because they're not reimbursed for board-related expenses.

One problem: It's not true.

All but one of eight sitting commissioners received thousands of dollars in reimbursements for air fare, luxury hotel accommodations and meals, a Daily News investigation has found.

The commissioners and agency employees appear to routinely get taxpayers to pick up expenses barred by city rules -- everything from a "deep tissue" massage to an $800 dinner.

Records show taxpayers often paid for Board of Elections workers-only pizza parties (usually from Grimaldi's in Brooklyn) and tickets to social events, including an agency official's attendance at a legislative dinner with her state Senator husband.

Though city rules limit employee attendance at conferences to two a year, commissioners and top agency officials often attended three. Some of these same top officials would sign off on their own expenses.

As a result of the News investigation, the agency last week announced it would tighten its procedures and audit all expenses back to Jan. 1, 2007. Employees will have to pay back any bogus reimbursements. Already one employee has written a $1,500 check.

The claim of non-reimbursement surfaced last year when Board of Elections commissioners went to Albany hat in hand. All are part-timers appointed by Republican and Democratic party leaders.

For years, they were paid $125 a meeting, capped at $12,500 a year. They tried and failed in 2006 to raise it to $300 per meeting with a $30,000 cap; they tried again in 2007.

In legislative documents, one of the key reasons given to justify the pay raise states, "City regulations prohibit reimbursement for tolls, parking and the cost of any conferences they attend."

Board spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez-Rivera said the board did not write this language. Spokespersons for the bill's two co-sponsors, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn, and Sen. Serphin Maltese, R-Queens, denied writing the language.

Maltese's chief of staff, Vicki Vattimo, said, "They asked us to sponsor this. To the best of my recollection, they wrote it."

Whoever wrote it, it worked. The law passed and starting in September 2007 the commissioner's pay rate more than doubled to the $30,000 cap.

As the bill made its way to approval, most of the commissioners were reimbursed for thousands of dollars in hotel, transportation and meals for attending several conferences at resorts upstate.

In all, commissioners collected $10,342.88 in reimbursements. Brooklyn Republican Nancy Mottola-Schacher led the way with $2,594.85.

Only Commissioner Gregory Soumas, a Manhattan Democrat, didn't put in for expenses because he didn't attend any conferences. "I questioned their value," he said.

All told, seven commissioners and 25 top-level board employees pocketed $57,896 in expenses since Jan. 1, 2007, mostly for hotel bills, airfare and meals at conferences.

A review of hundreds of pages of expense reports and receipts filed by board employees since Jan. 1, 2007 found numerous examples of unjustifiable expenses.

Commissioner James Sampel, a Staten Island Democrat, must have been trying to work out the kinks during a weekend conference at the Hudson Valley Resort & Spa near Kingston in January 2007.

His expense report included a $50 charge for "spa massage" described as "50 min deep tissue/Alex."

Marks on the bill suggest the massage fee was subtracted from the $420 total, which should have reduced the bill to $370. But the check cut by the city shows Sampel received $400, indicating "deep tissue" was at least partly taxpayer-funded.

Sampel approved the expense form himself. In a brief interview, he insisted he wasn't reimbursed for the massage, and agency officials later produced a receipt for a $30 conference fee they say accounted for the difference.

Taxpayers also picked up a $500 deductible on an insurance payout Sampel received when fire damaged his Staten Island home in November 2007.

Details of the fire are unclear. Board spokeswoman Vazquez said police believe the fire was set by someone who'd made threats to Sampel in connection with his board position.

Vazquez-Rivera promised to produce a police report about the incident but never did.

Records also show Board of Elections employees ate well.

In one particularly memorable night out in June 2007, 13 board employees attending a conference at Lake Placid spent $800 on a lavish dinner at the four-star Mirror Lake Inn.

First, the group quaffed top-shelf liquor, ordering a Grey Goose martini, Stoli vodka and Absolut with cranberry, as well as a Cosmopolitan, an apricot sour and glasses of Pinot Noir, Chardonay and Reisling.

Appetizers included $109.50 for lobster gnocci. Entrees included $26.95 veal tenderloin and $28.50 for duck magret. They finished with exotic deserts including "death by chocolate" ($8.25), a peanut butter bomb ($7.95), and cappuccino all around.

All told they spent $99 on booze, $535 on food, plus tax and a $120 tip for a grand total of $803.91, split several ways. Supervisors approved reimbursement for this expense, although city rules specify city funds are not to pay for out-of-town meals involving only city employees.

In one case, a supervisor who approved a subordinate's dinner reimbursement benefitted from the arrangement.

In March 2007, board manager Pamela Green Perkins approved lawyer Steven Richman's $94 bill at Scrimshaw in Albany. The diners were Richman and Perkins.

Richman, a Brooklyn Democrat, returned the favor, getting taxpayers to pay for his mileage when he drove his personal vehicle to a tribute for Perkins' husband, Sen. Bill Perkins, D-Harlem.

Pamela Perkins, in turn, had taxpayers pay for her to go to the State Black and Puerto Rican Legislator's Conference in 2007 and 2008 in Albany. Total bill for hotels, transportation and meals was $836, including a $150 ticket to a scholarship dinner as her husband's "guest."

Last week Perkins was forced to write a $1,559 check to pay the city back for these unjustified expenses. She did so reluctantly, writing, "I have no doubt about the legitimacy of my participation on behalf of the Board at these events. I was quite taken aback by the response from you and others regarding this issue."

Her boss, George Gonzalez, a Bronx Democrat, approved that bill. Gonzalez often put in for his morning coffee, frequently demanding payment for purchases ranging from 95 cents to $1.73.

Grimaldi's pizza was extremely popular with Gonzalez and another top official, Lucille Grimaldi. Both spent $548.74 on pizzas at the high-end joint in Brooklyn for three staff meetings.

The reimbursement king at Board of Elections was Richman, the board's $113,170-a-year counsel.

Since Jan. 1, 2007, he's run up $11,792 in expenses by demanding mileage reimbursement for dozens of trips from his Brooklyn home to pretty much anywhere else.

His reimbursed trips included a wake, a funeral, the inauguration of Andrew Cuomo and state Sen. Malcolm Smith, and a ceremony for U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel -- all Democrats.

He said reimbursement of several trips from home to court was justified because of an exception that reimburses city workers who must carry "special equipment or materials which cannot feasibly be transported by public mass transit." The equipment, apparently, is his legal papers.

Richman even had taxpayers pay his membership in vocational groups such as the New York County and the New York State Bar Associations.

Twice Richman got reimbursed for an expense not allowed by city rules - staying at a hotel an extra night before attending a conference. Both upstate hotels featured spas.

Often the business purpose of the reimbursements wasn't clear.

Several employees were reimbursed for everything from window shades to trays to TV cables. None of these expenses spells out their specific Board of Election purpose.

Beth Fossella, coordinator of voter registration and mother of shamed Congressman Vito Fossella, charged taxpayers $268 for two plane tickets to Syracuse on April 30, 2007. She was paid without identifying her travel partner.

Commissioner Frederic Umane got $172.75 for a stay at the Desmond Hotel in Albany on March 5, 2007, and $168.00 for gas. No reason was given for that stay or an April 14 stay at an upstate Marriott that cost $148.30.

With Benjamin Lesser