City audit finds expense overpayments for Charlotte city executives

Charlotte Fire Department Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin
Charlotte Fire Department Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin

The city of Charlotte is tightening rules for employee travel reimbursements after an audit found payments were mishandled for several executives.

And in the latest blow to the Charlotte Fire Department, Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin – who is under investigation for allegedly posting an offensive picture to his Facebook account – had to repay $2,750 worth of expenses for which the city said he was wrongly reimbursed, according to the audit and City Manager Ron Carlee. Dulin was placed on administrative leave Monday because of the Facebook investigation, a CFD spokeswoman said.

Carlee said he believes the incorrect payments identified by the audit were the result of inattention and an outdated expense policy, not malicious behavior. He said the city didn’t identify any instances of a city employee willfully taking money.

“Thus far we’ve not actually found any fraud,” Carlee told Charlotte City Council members on Monday. “We haven’t found people trying to rip off the city. We have found some inattentiveness to detail. Our goal is to get 100 percent compliance.”

The findings were “not outrageous,” Carlee said, but properly completed expenses “still speak to the basic integrity of the workforce.”

37 workers in audit

The audit, released Monday, covered 27 top executives and the 10 nonexecutive employees who were reimbursed the most for travel in fiscal year 2013.

In the single-biggest overpayment, Dulin was reimbursed $1,600 for airfare, hotel and baggage fees that he used his city-issued payment card to book, according to the audit and Carlee. Dulin also submitted a reimbursement request. Dulin was also paid about $458 in incorrect per diem amounts for four other trips, and advanced $667 for a 2012 trip that was canceled. He also was reimbursed $26.58 for two purchases made at local retailers with his city-issued payment card.

He repaid the city for the improper reimbursements, the audit said, totaling $2,750.

Audit highlights

Other findings from the audit include:

▪ Eric Campbell, former assistant city manager, was reimbursed for $144 worth of gas for two trips for which he also filed $464 worth of mileage expenses. He repaid Charlotte $144. Campbell left last year to take a similar job with the city of Dallas.

▪ Chuck Robinson, former director of shared services, filed for $200 worth of mileage in addition to receiving a car stipend, billed the city for $174 worth of airline change fees and trip insurance that were paid for with a city payment card and overcharged the city $127 for a rental car, according to the audit and Carlee. He repaid the city $538. Robinson retired in late 2013.

The city spent $1.4 million on travel, training and other employee reimbursements in fiscal year 2013. City officials said the 37 employees in the audit accounted for $123,581 worth of such expenses.

No employees were named in the audit, but Carlee provided the names of three employees whose expenses were specifically highlighted because expense reports are public records.

Charlotte Chief Financial Officer Randy Harrington said the improper expenses discovered during the audit account for less than 3 percent of the 37 employees’ total.

Members of the council’s governance and accountability committee said they weren’t extremely concerned with the findings.

“If you look at $3,300 worth of expenses ... this was more about process than trying to do a ‘gotcha,’ more than anything,” said Chairman David Howard. “It was small in comparison to the total budget.”

Carlee said that an employee or employees did face discipline as a result of the audit. But he declined to say what that discipline consisted of, citing the confidentiality of personnel records.

City spokeswoman Sandy D’Elosua said that Campbell, Robinson and Dulin have no suspensions, demotions or transfers – which are public records – in their files.

In a statement, CFD said Dulin’s job requires him to travel more than other employees, with 36 trips in the last three years. The agency said he promptly repaid the city for all of the expenses.

“Chief Dulin immediately reimbursed the city,” CFD said. “The Charlotte Fire Department is committed to ensuring its accounting practices are clear and accurate.”

Dulin also issued an apology for the Facebook posting, which mocked Bruce Jenner’s widely reported transition to a woman.

“While I did not create the picture that was widely circulated on the Internet and Facebook, it was posted to my account. I take full responsibility for the lapse in judgment and am truly sorry for that,” Dulin said in a statement.

“I want everyone to know that I am by no means a person who holds any prejudicial feelings toward any member of our community,” Dulin said. “This is incredibly personal to me, and while I will not go into details, I want to assure everyone that I respect people of all backgrounds and sexual preference.”

Policy changes made

As a result of the travel expense audit, Charlotte has changed some of its policies about employee travel and reimbursement.

The city’s finance department will now oversee travel expenses, instead of the budget and evaluation department. That will let finance officials check expenses as they come in, rather than do large retrospective audits.

The audit also recommended the city’s departments more closely monitor and enforce travel policies.

A revised city travel policy, implemented last month, includes a uniform per diem for meals while traveling. The amount will vary by city, and is based on the federal government’s rate for traveling employees. Carlee said that will simplify expenses and avoid confusion while traveling. Some departments had been using their own per diem rates, while others had been reimbursing employees for meals. Some submitted receipts, while others didn’t.

The new policy is twice as long as the city’s former policy, which hadn’t been updated since 1989. The city now forbids new categories of expenses that didn’t exist in 1989, such as airline priority boarding fees and fees for seats with more legroom. Employees had billed the city for $1,521 worth of such expenses, the audit found.

This is the latest time Carlee has tightened financial controls since he took the job of city manager in 2013. Last year, a series of audits at Charlotte Douglas International Airport – which is an independently run and financed city department – found lax oversight of leases and other business transactions.

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CFD’s Dulin placed on administrative leave

Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin’s $2,750 worth of mishandled expenses is the latest controversy for the Charlotte Fire Department. Dulin is also under investigation for allegedly posting an offensive picture to his Facebook wall, showing Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner – who is believed to be transitioning to a woman – on a Froot Loops box. He was put on administrative leave on Monday.

The department is also under scrutiny for the dismissal of former CFD investigator Crystal Eschert. She posted a message in the wake of a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that said, “If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race – You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are!” Eschert has said she was fired in retaliation for speaking up about unsafe conditions in a CFD building.

“I think what has been going on over the past few weeks has risen to a level of distraction that certainly cannot continue,” said Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee. “It won’t continue.”

Carlee said the he and CFD Chief Jon Hannan are in agreement that the “distractions” can’t keep going, and that CFD has an outside review of its leadership underway.

Ely Portillo