- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 30, 2014

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Regular noncompliance by top state officials suggests that changes are needed in rules governing out-of-state travel and the use of state credit cards, Delaware’s Republican state auditor said in a report released Wednesday that Democratic Gov. Jack Markell’s office suggests was politically motivated.

Auditor Tom Wagner’s office began examining travel and procurement-card use following the resignation last year of former deputy state treasurer Erika Benner, who reimbursed the state about $6,400 for personal charges on her state credit card.

Auditors examined expenses and reimbursements for the governor, state treasurer, deputy treasurer, transportation secretary, insurance commissioner and state economic development director over two years. They then compared those records to state budget and accounting manual rules.

“In general, we found consistent noncompliance with exhaustive and bureaucratic instructions,” the report stated, describing rules regarding travel and credit card use as “confusing and a moving target.” Selective enforcement of the out-of-state travel authorization form for elected and appointed officials was the most concerning noncompliance issue, according to Wednesday’s report.

Markell spokeswoman Kelly Bachman criticized the report - which takes issue with airline seating upgrades for Markell, his $128.50 purchase of saltwater taffy for National Guard troops in Afghanistan, certain meal and lodging expenses, and expenditures by his transportation secretary.

“Given the timing of this inspection, the extensive review of issues like taffy, and the selective focus on the governor” and the transportation department, “it is not hard to imagine that this review may have been motivated more by politics than by a good-faith desire to improve state travel policies,” Bachman said in an email.

Wagner noted that, strictly speaking, some expenditures made by the governor’s office aren’t allowed under existing policies.

“Under the current guidelines, he has to follow the same policy as everybody else does,” said Wagner, adding that the rules should allow more flexibility.

State treasurer Chip Flowers agreed that the rules can be confusing and need to be changed.

“It’s a mess,” he said.

But Flowers said the report vindicates actions taken by his office in response to Benner’s purchases and clears him of any wrongdoing related to extended stays by him and Benner in Alaska and Washington state after official conferences they attended in 2012.

“The findings of the report are crystal clear,” Flowers said. “I used my state credit card for only legitimate business expenses and never used my card for any personal expenses, not a single penny.”

Wagner declined to respond to Flowers’ assertion.

“I’ll let the report speak for itself,” Wagner said.

The report notes that Flowers reimbursed the state more than $1,300 for various travel expenses. His explanation for reimbursing funds for purportedly legitimate business expenses, according to the report, was that he was trying to address accusations in the news media and was tired of seeing his name in the newspaper. Auditors also noted that “despite public scrutiny and various reports to the contrary,” treasury officials charged with internal control responsibilities followed “timely and appropriate” procedures that resulted in restitution to the state.

Last year, Flowers blamed what he called confusion about his office’s travel and credit card records on mistakes made by his former senior fiscal officer, who has since retired.

Among the report’s other findings was that Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt hosted an overnight retreat for 18 senior transportation department employees in Rehoboth Beach in 2012, in violation of rules that allow lodging expenses only for approved out-of-state travel.

“While the meeting could have been held in an out-of-state location, it made more sense to convene the meeting where the travel dollars would stay in Delaware,” DOT spokesman Geoff Sundstrom said in an emailed statement.



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