Pittsburgh Controller Lamb calls for end to mayor's special fund

System, most used for travel, criticized as 'vestige' of past

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A special city fund used to pay mayor's office expenses, primarily for travel, is outdated and should be eliminated, Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb said Tuesday.

"I think it's a vestige of the past," Mr. Lamb said of the 18-year-old mayoral imprest fund, which has served as a petty cash fund, containing up to $10,000. The mayor and members of his office can use "the same travel policy as everybody else," which gives city employees the option of seeking pre-approval and pre-payment of expenses, or to front the costs and get reimbursement later. Mr. Lamb's office audits the imprest fund annually.

Some city council members were troubled by the mayor's imprest fund because its expenditures aren't reviewed by council. Councilman Corey O'Connor said that, at the very least, mayoral travel should be treated the same way that travel for other city employees is treated.

"The mayor might have to go to an important business trip at the blink of an eye," Mr. O'Connor said. "Which is fine. Go on the trip. Get the receipts. Come back. And get reimbursed for it."

Mr. Lamb's comments came after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette detailed mayor's office travel from 2010 through 2012, which was sometimes covered by the imprest fund, sometimes using campaign funds, and sometimes paid by third parties.

"The question is, 'Are city dollars being misused?' " Mr. Lamb asked. "From what we can tell, no, not on this fund."

The mayor's imprest fund is reviewed by his auditors, and its records are available to the public. Auditors match its expenses to receipts and review whether they reflect legitimate city business.

Marissa Doyle, spokeswoman for the mayor, wrote in an email that, "Under this administration, all imprest fund activity to date has remained consistent with the resolution of council that was authorized in March, 1995."

The office is reviewing last year's records. Mr. Lamb said he's already raised questions about a trip that government affairs manager Paul McKrell took in December in which he accompanied the mayor to a forum in Chicago and then to New York City, where the two attended the Pennsylvania Society, an annual political gathering in the Big Apple. All of the mayor's expenditures were covered by his campaign funds.

When the mayor pays for members of his staff using his city credit card, the staff often repay the city and then seek reimbursement through normal avenues. Mr. McKrell said he did just that, writing a check for the full cost of the flight -- $626.60 -- that was cashed last month. He's been reimbursed for half of the trip with the mayor's campaign funds since the last leg of the trip was political. But he's now seeking reimbursement from the city for the other half of the flight, since he argues the first leg of the trip to Chicago, where he accompanied the mayor for an appearance at University of Illinois, was city business.

Mr. McKrell said he had not been contacted by the controller's office.

The mayor's imprest fund also allows him and his staff to skirt other requirements that bind city employees when they travel. When most other city employees travel, they often foot the bill, submit expense reports and then are reimbursed. Their travel is documented in letters and quarterly reports to council. According to records from the controller's office, the mayor's staff often notifies council in letters when they travel on his city credit card. But they haven't on every occasion.

Mr. Lamb said that while it's "permissible" for the mayor's staff to skirt the council notification requirement, "that doesn't make it right."

Councilman Patrick Dowd said he was also concerned about the mayor's practice of covering travel expenditures for members of his staff. Many of those expenditures were paid back -- either through a personal check or through a reimbursement request -- but records show there was no consistent practice for how or when the imprest fund was made whole.

"It's a way to subvert the regular processes that have been made for travel and things of that purpose," he said.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak acknowledged that the reimbursement process can be cumbersome and slow and didn't object to the existence of a special mayor-only travel policy.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord. Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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