I have a company credit card. The bosses afforded me the privilege after being with the company for quite a long time. And I am able to purchase gas or other work-related items if really needed, say a replacement for a camera card reader. But it makes me feel kind of uncomfortable too, having that card, even though it has a super low limit. I don’t want the bosses to feel I’m taking advantage of them. So, for instance, I can’t conceive of using it for pricey meals or certainly for any expenses related to my next job, if I take another down the road.
There might be those who think I’m just raising a stink over nothing with this week’s front-page story on the former sheriff and his chief deputy using a county credit card for private security training. I know Kip Thomas and Shawn Burns certainly do. And I bear no ill will whatsoever to either. I dealt with them for years and they were cordial to me. And I’d hope for that to continue both ways. But when I was told there were hotel and food expenses related to private security training in the final days of the Thomas administration, I knew I’d be irresponsible if I didn’t file an open records request.
Here’s how I view such things: If I’m informed there’s a paper trail on anything that looks like a personal use of county funds or some sort of obvious misuse, then I’ll file the records request. It doesn’t mean I’ll find anything. It doesn’t mean there was misuse. It just means I’ll look. I’m not a mind reader. So someone with knowledge obviously has to tip me off to such stuff. I won’t say who told me. But for clarity’s sake, I will say it’s not the current sheriff’s administration. And who told me ultimately doesn’t matter. The records matter. If the records don’t reveal anything, there’s no story.
In this case, something just doesn’t smell right to me. I don’t feel any training expenses on a credit card can be justified by those knowingly leaving office within a few weeks. The exception would be if they can show that the training will be put to immediate use in an out-of-the-ordinary situation. For instance, if Donald Trump is coming to Danielsville, then yeah, I get it. But that wasn’t the case. And I doubt any of the commissioners were in need of VIP security during Thanksgiving or Christmas from Thomas or Burns.
Or, perhaps if the reservations for the training were made well before the election, I could understand. But they weren’t. They were made afterwards.
Burns told me this week that he is trying to get a private security business going. He and Thomas went to Florida for training from a firm that helps people obtain the skills for such businesses. While there, they put a number of meals on the county credit card. Law officers and other government employees who go for training are often afforded a per diem for meals. That’s a fact. But I couldn’t help but see the frequency of the meals —the $2,700 in food expenses between August and November — and the places where they ate, like the Bonefish Grill in Florida for $96.13, and think, “this is straight up a middle finger to the taxpayer.” I know that if I took my company credit card in my wallet and used it at Bonefish Grill — and particularly while on a training trip that didn’t appear to directly relate to my current job — then I’d be shooting my boss a bird. He’d know it too. And he’d be rightfully ticked.
According to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (O.C.G.A), Article 4, Sec. 2.206 — (meals), the in-state regular rate for meal reimbursement is as follows: breakfast, $6; lunch, $7; and dinner, $15. The high-cost area rate (limited to Chatham, Cobb, Dekalb, Fulton, Glynn and Gwinnett) counties is as follows: breakfast, $7; lunch, $9; dinner, $20. Likewise, the in-state per-diem (per day) rate for meals is $28. The “high-cost area” per-diem rate is $36.
The county commissioners have adopted this state policy for department employees. But constitutional officers, such as the sheriff’s office, operate outside of the BOC’s control. However, the intent of the state meal policy is clear. Don’t go hog wild. That should apply to anyone serving the public, right? I’m sorry, $2,700 in sheriff’s office meal expenses in a four-month span, that’s going hog wild.
I’m not intending to be a jerk with any of this toward Thomas or Burns. But the taxpayers have a right to see those credit card expenses. They are the bosses when it comes to taxpayer money.
And let me put this out there, too. If you have a taxpayer-backed credit card and you are a government employee, then you need to beware of what you do with it. I hope that the effect of publishing this story is to make anyone with a credit card in the taxpayers’ name use it with a little trepidation of being in print with a questionable charge. It may not be illegal, but taxpayers are pretty smart with the sniff test.
I’m simply holding this up to your noses. What you think is up to you. But you have a right to know and a right to sniff.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.