After audit, Everett to tighten travel reimbursement policy

EVERETT — On Wednesday, the Everett City Council is scheduled to adopt some changes to its travel and reimbursement policy.

They’re relatively minor changes that tighten up the existing policy, rather than a wholesale overhaul. But they patch a few gaps that were identified during an audit by the State Auditor’s Office last year.

Those gaps were identified because auditors wanted to take a closer look at the expenses submitted by a former city councilman who was under investigation at his regular workplace for misbehavior.

The Daily Herald’s reporting on the investigation into former Councilman Ron Gipson’s behavior at his work at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center caught the attention of the state’s audit committee.

Gipson consistently maintained his innocence and ultimately was allowed to return to work. He lost his City Council seat in November’s election to Cassie Franklin.

“The investigation centered around alleged inappropriate behavior at his job toward co-workers,” the auditors wrote. “During our audit brainstorm, we decided that we would review the expenditures that are related to Ron Gipson as he serves as a City of Everett Council Member.”

The auditors have wide leeway to pursue leads, whether they originate from citizen complaints or turn up in the course of an investigation, said Thomas Shapley, the communications director of the State Auditor’s Office.

“That’s one of the values we provide, because we’re independent and we’re looking for risk, and we pursue it where we judge it to be,” Shapley said.

All City Council members are issued credit cards, which per city policy can only be used for travel-related expenses, city Communications Director Meghan Pembroke said.

The city already has a reimbursement policy in place for expenses that are shown to benefit the public.

The audit found that Gipson made two trips to National League of Cities conferences in 2014 and 2015. He submitted expenses totalling $5,214.44 for the two conferences, and the auditors identified $426.18 in charges for which there was not adequate documentation to show it had a public benefit.

For example, at one conference where lunch was provided as part of the registration fee, two dinners were purchased on one day and reimbursed. One of the dinners was included as a lunch reimbursement. The total cost of the dinner, taken at 10:17 p.m., was $40.25.

At the other conference, three lunch reimbursements were claimed, though the registration fee included lunch.

Gipson also extended his hotel stay by a day after the conference had ended, and submitted charges for the hotel, a full day of meals, and parking, for a total of $349.05 in additional reimbursement.

The audit committee met with Gipson on July 28, 2015, to ask him about the expenditures.

“From our conversation with Ron, we concluded that his expenditures could be considered reasonable, however, Ron did not retain documentation to show the public benefit for the expenditures,” the committee wrote.

Gipson defended his actions, pointing out that the audit did not find he had broken any policies.

“After 20 years, I followed the city travel policy to a T,” Gipson said.

He pointed to one of the documents in the auditors’ files that seemed to imply that the investigators hired by the county to look into Gipson’s work behavior had tipped off the State Auditor’s Office in an attempt to further discredit him.

The county’s investigator should have referred any accusations of wrongdoing through the proper channels, namely law enforcement if they thought laws were broken.

“They don’t have a duty to report,” Gipson said.

This isn’t the first time Gipson had a run-in with the auditors. In 1999, it was discovered that Gipson billed the city for more than $2,000 in charges on his cellphone, more than all of the other council members combined. He later reimbursed the city for $900 in personal calls.

The Auditor’s Office later held an “exit conference” discussing the broad findings about the city’s travel policy and recommending changes.

The committee recommended defining meal times and to set maximum amounts for meal reimbursements and per diem expenses.

Council President Scott Murphy, who attended the exit conference, said Gipson wasn’t mentioned by name at the time.

The details were spelled out in the work papers from the audit obtained by the Daily Herald under a public records request.

Murphy said it was also pointed out that the policy didn’t specifically cover municipal judges. The new policy includes judges, establishes fixed hours for meals that can be reimbursed, and ties the maximum to the rate used by federal government employees,

“We’ve come back now with a policy that reflects all the concerns that were raised,” Murphy said in introducing the resolution to the rest of the council on Wednesday.

“It’s really a more transparent and streamlined policy,” Murphy said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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