SLO backs chief over violations of city’s travel claims policy
February 16, 2015
By KAREN VELIE and DANIEL BLACKBURN
In response to a CalCoastNews exclusive on multiple violations of city travel reimbursement policies by San Luis Obispo Police Chief Steve Gesell, the city manager and finance director worked out a way to explain the chief’s “mistakes.”
Even though Gesell’s actions violate written city policies, Director of Finance Wayne Padilla dismissed many violations as “consistent application” of policy according to a “historical interpretation.” Historical interpretation means a policy is adhered to not by what is written, but by how the policy has been followed in the past.
In one email, Gesell says he is very satisfied with the “verbiage” used by Padilla to explain his requests for reimbursement.
“The comprehensive review of Chief Gessell’s travel records has been completed and indicates that there was consistent application by the police department of travel policy interpretation that have been used on a historical basis,” Padilla says in an email to the Tribune.
City policy requires that employees keep detailed receipts and do not spend more than $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch and $35 for dinner.
During the past year, Gesell often failed to keep itemized receipts while violating the city’s per-diem meal rates. During a July 30 through Aug. 1 conference Lichtig and Gesell attended together in Sacramento, the pair violated the per-diem meal expense allowance in all but one of the four meals they shared.
In addition, Gesell often selected the highest priced lodging available even though city policy says, “The accommodations you use should be economical but practical.” Again, Padilla found no wrongdoing under the “historical interpretation.”
In September, the city agreed to reimburse Gesell for the cost of attending the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Orlando the following month. Gesell then purchased three airline tickets for $1,181 for himself, his wife and his daughter.
Even though the airline invoice shows a per ticket price of $288.40, Gesell had the city reimburse $893.20, the highest price for a one ticket from U.S. Airways. The city approved this under Padilla’s historical interpretation basis.
San Luis Obispo attorney Stew Jenkins said it appeared the city manager, police chief and city prosecutor haven’t read the Jan. 29, opinion of the 4th District Court of Appeal, handed down in Woody’s Group, Inc. v. City of Newport Beach.
The court held: “the city’s incantation of a “policy and practice” in direct violation of its own code cannot conform that alleged policy and practice to due process. The city council violated the rules laid down in the city’s own municipal code, then purported to exempt itself from that code by invoking some previously undocumented custom of ignoring those rules when it comes to council members themselves.”
In its ruling, the court said that there is no room for unwritten rules, policies or customs outside the municipal code to allow city officials to give themselves privileges.
“It would seem even more obvious that a police chief (or any other managerial officer) could not be insulated by a custom of overlooking prior violations from culpability for filing claims for reimbursement “in direct violation of” a code or policy adopted years ago by the city council to prevent misappropriation of public funds for personal use.
City policy does not permit Gesell to charge the city for meals for his family or while on a vacation. Even so, Gesell also got the city to pay for several meals for his family including a $39 for an Oct. 26 lunch at Mei Asian Chinese Buffet in Orlando. The lunch buffet at Mei Asian Chinese Buffet costs $8.50 per adult. On Oct. 29, the day after the convention ended, Gesell and his family drove to the Everglades, a three-hour drive from Orlando. In the evening, Gesell purchased two meals at Quinn’s on the Beach for $58.83, and then billed taxpayers, city records show.
Padilla acknowledged that Gesell did charge the city for several meals for his family. He brushed off the issue saying that Gesell “inadvertently and mistakenly submitted two requests for reimbursement.”
Gesell agreed to reimburse the city $146.43 for a portion of the family’s meals that were charged to the city. Padilla offset the meal reimbursement charge by crediting Gesell for the cost of a rental car. Gesell did not rent a car on a different trip and Padilla allowed him to use that credit for the Orlando trip. City policy says a rental car is only permitted when required and recommends employees take buses, streetcars and subways when available.
“Each employee is responsible for following these practices,” city policy says. “Violation of this policy may result in disciplinary action, termination of employment or criminal prosecution.”
In response to the CalCoastNews exclusive, Padilla and Lichtig are recommending three changes to the city’s travel policy – a requirement for each employee to sign his own travel reimbursement reports, having the city manager approve expense reports for department heads, and having Lichtig and City Attorney Christine Dietrick approve each other’s reimbursement requests.
In September, Gesell spent a week in Israel learning how its police agencies deal with suicide bombers and attacks by militants armed with automatic weapons. The program, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), provides American police officials with training in Israeli police tactics that includes having police wear body armor and carry automatic weapons as they patrol the streets.
While the trip was to be paid for entirely by the ADL, Gesell had one of his sergeants purchase a plane ticket on Aug. 20 for a flight from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles International Airport, where Gesell was pre-ticketed for the flight to Israel.
The chief then submitted a written request to have the city pay the $379 charge out of the police department’s training account which he was later paid.
Gesell has made multiple claims that no public moneys were used to fund the trip. After being questioned about the $379 charge, Gesell refunded the city for the expense.
Mike Brennler, a decorated former San Luis Obispo police officer criticized Gesell for his travel and reimbursement practices.
“Gesell’s behavior is deplorable, if not criminal,” Brennler said. “It brings great discredit to the police department and serves to erode the public’s confidence. It also serves as a model of hypocrisy to the line level employees who are expected to behave honestly and responsibly. Undoubtedly, these employees have been suffering when faced with the reality that their leader has set the bar of acceptable and ethical behavior so terribly low.”