Editor's Note: The story has been updated with a response from the city of West Hollywood.
With the election just three days away, a community activist has uncovered what he considers extravagant meals and gifts that employees paid for with the city’s credit card.
More than $13,000 in charges were made on the city credit card for lunches at Soho House, dinners at , Montblanc pens, gift cards and more, local activist Ed Buck found out after combing through records for the city’s charge card.
"Rumors have been swirling around for ages; everyone knew there was abuse in City Hall. Finally, I said, 'I’ll do the digging,' " explained Buck, who filed a public records request in January and finally was allowed to see the documents Thursday, but only after much pushing.
What he found included $674 for dinner for six at Cecconi’s (including a $75 plate of wild salmon); $195 for lunch at Soho House; $308 for dinner at Soho House; $152 for lunch for nine at ; $114 at Italian restaurant; $77 at ; $92 at the Palm restaurant; $2,040 for six Montblanc pens bought at the Beverly Center; and $1,860 worth of gift cards from Gelson’s.
Mayor deputy Fran Solomon made a large number of these charges. Another person who was not identified on the records made many others, Buck said.
"I looked and saw 'Lunch with Steve Afriat, $100,' " Buck said. "Why are they taking a lobbyist to lunch and then paying for it? With taxpayer dollars? The man makes $300,000 a year and we’re paying for it?"
Buck gave the information to Schmidt because one of his campaign platforms has been reducing excess spending in City Hall.
“I knew we had to get it out there before the election,” Buck explained. “I figured if I gave it to a candidate, he’d post it and the press would pick it up.”
Buck and another person spent approximately four hours Thursday morning sitting in the hallway beside the ladies room in City Hall (the nearby conference room was empty, but they weren’t allowed to use it), combing through more than 5,000 pages of receipts. The entire time, Assistant City Clerk Carmen Nunley sat four feet away watching them. When she had to use the bathroom, City Clerk Tom West or another employee came out to watch them.
Buck was not allowed to photocopy or photograph the records, only make written notes. “They wouldn’t let me photograph them because they said I might get personal information or the credit card numbers off the receipts; she said they might have to be redacted,” Buck said.
When LA Weekly tried to contact Solomon for comment, its reporter was told that she was at lunch. West told LA Weekly, “People use the cards for different things,” adding that he’d “have to investigate if there was a written policy" against using the charge cards for dinners of a certain cost.
Buck called the charge card use "abuse" and one of the “worst kept secrets in City Hall.”
Schmidt said he too was sickened by the charges when Buck gave them to him.
"This is a fundamental question of 'Is this legal?' " Schmidt said. “I don’t know of any place it would be legal, but under John Heilman’s leadership, it seems to be acceptable to have $100 lunches.”
Schmidt said he took it on blind faith that Buck’s information was accurate and posted it because the public needs to know. “We expect public employees to be good stewards. If you’re making over $100,000 [Solomon’s yearly salary], you should be able to buy your own lunch.”
Neither Schmidt nor Buck said they knew whether the district attorney would get involved in the investigation, but both compared these credit card charges to the Bell City Hall scandal that the LA Times uncovered last year.
The city's Finance Department staff issued the following statement to West Hollywood Patch:
"All credit card purchases are reviewed by staff in the Finance Department to ensure appropriate documentation and that the purpose of the expenditure was for legitimate city business. No public funds have been expended for membership in the Soho House and the Montblanc pens were gifts celebrating major employee milestones."
The statement also said the city of West Hollywood has in place a written expense reimbursement policy adopted by the City Council that complies with the requirements of Government Code Sections (AB 1234). "Any expenditure charged on a city of West Hollywood credit card must be in compliance with the policy and in furtherance of a municipal purpose," the statement said.
Schmidt says it's up to the voters to hold Heilman accountable. Buck added, “John [Heilman], if you knew, you shouldn’t be re-elected. If you didn’t know, you shouldn’t be re-elected.”
Buck said that he made notations only of those charges that were saw as egregious. But there were many more that he found questionable. “I only scratched the surface. I imagine there are $100,000 worth of excess charges for 2010 alone. Who knows how much it will be if they go back through the years.”
Buck quit sifting through the records after four hours because it simply became “too overwhelming” to continue, he said.
Buck has offered to make his notes available to all nine candidates for the three City Council seats up for election on March 8. So far, three have responded to his offer. He’s also willing to let the public see his notes. He hopes that if people put enough pressure on City Hall, it will release the full records to the public.