Friday, June 18, 2010

Mendocino County Grand jury turns to AG's Office over Smith's travel expenses

Ukiah Daily Journal Staff
Updated: 06/18/2010 12:00:16 AM PDT

The Mendocino County grand jury has asked for an opinion from the Attorney General's Office in an attempt to force the District Attorney's Office to get 4th District Supervisor Kendall Smith to repay the county more than $3,000 of travel money she allegedly misused.

The GJ released a report June 14 titled "It's Not Over Yet!: A Failure to Collect Mendocino County Supervisor Travel Overpayments," criticizing the District Attorney's Office for its use of "prosecutorial discretion" in choosing not to pursue repayment of $3,087, the amount of travel reimbursement the auditor's office estimated Smith allegedly claimed but didn't incur over two years.

The report cites a state law that authorizes the GJ to "order the district attorney of the county to institute suit to recover any money that, in the judgment of the grand jury, may from any cause be due the county."

GJ Forewoman Kathy Wylie requested an opinion from the state AG's office "concerning the apparent discrepancy" between that law and the district attorney's "use of prosecutorial discretion in this matter."

Three previous grand juries have questioned the District Attorney's Office's refusal to enforce that law, following investigations into the county supervisors' travel expenses.

The 2008-09 grand jury recommended Smith repay $3,087, the minimum amount the county auditor calculated Smith was overpaid in travel reimbursements between June 2005 and November 2006.

Smith allegedly rented a room in Ukiah or $100 per month "as needed to do her job," according to the 2008-09 GJ report, while also claiming a "per-diem" reimbursement for daily, round-trip mileage to Ukiah from her Fort Bragg home.

In her response, Smith says the auditor's recommendation "clearly states may' have been overpaid," adding, "It also states that a historical analysis of past claims was not done. It is not a comprehensive audit of the Fourth District Supervisor's claims, the immediate past Fourth District Supervisor or any other supervisor's claims."

The 2008-09 GJ claimed Smith said she didn't understand the county's travel and meal reimbursement policy at the time, and interpreted it incorrectly.

Smith's attorney, James L. Larson, said Smith's claims were always reviewed and approved before being paid, and were submitted in good faith, an April 2008 response from Mendocino County District Attorney Meredith Lintott says.

Responding to the GJ's demand to pursue reimbursement from Smith, Lintott filed an Aug. 22, 2007 brief stating the superior court had no jurisdiction to institute recovery "because the amount claimed is less than $5,000."

Lintott's brief also says "evidence of specific intent to defraud would need to be proved for the county to prevail," and says she found no evidence to support that.

During that same time frame, travel expenses claimed by 5th District Supervisor David Colfax and 3rd District Supervisor John Pinches were also in question.

"It appears to the GJ that elected officials in Mendocino County may file fraudulent claims of less than $5,000 without repercussion from any county department, including the MCDA's office," the 2009-10 GJ report states.

The 2009-10 GJ report refers to a supervisor who repaid travel reimbursement overcharges in full, and another who promised to repay but "reneged."

The current GJ report recommends county supervisors "immediately reimburse the Mendocino County taxpayers for any unearned or inaccurately reported (travel) overpayments, as required for any other county employee."

It also recommends the Board of Supervisors eliminate the travel stipend it adopted in January 2008 and go back to claiming actual expenses.

The stipend increased supervisors' compensation and retirement benefits, and the county's payroll costs, according to the GJ - a finding county officials agreed with in their responses to prior GJ reports.

The GJ also recommends that the Board of Supervisors resolve that a 10 percent salary reduction the board implemented should apply to the board as it does to other county employees.

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