Monday, April 11, 2011

Mendocino County: Supervisor Smith pays disputed travel costs

By TIFFANY REVELLE The Daily Journal
Updated: 04/11/2011 06:19:11 PM PDT

Fourth District Supervisor Kendall Smith wrote a check to the county for the $3,087 she was overpaid for travel costs, county officials confirmed Monday.

Three previous grand juries found that Smith claimed reimbursement for business trips between her Fort Bragg home and the county seat in Ukiah from January 2005 to November 2006, when she was renting or staying with friends in Ukiah and not actually traveling.

Mendocino County District Attorney C. David Eyster delivered the check, written by Smith for the exact amount a prior grand jury deemed she was overpaid, to the county Auditor-Controller's Office Friday.

"I'm very glad to have this long, drawn-out affair over with, and I'm sure the taxpayers are, too," Eyster said Monday.

His office launched an investigation of the overpayments two weeks after he took office in January, and closed the case when Eyster received Smith's check with a letter saying the check wasn't an admission of guilt.

"It's no coincidence that the amount on the check is the same as the amount that the grand jury and the Auditor's Office said she needed to pay back," Eyster said.

The amount goes into a "prior year revenue" account that becomes part of the county's general fund, according to Assistant Auditor-Controller Lloyd Weer.

The fund is a "catch-all" where county revenue can go after that fiscal year is closed, he said.

Smith denied she was overpaid for the business travel in her responses to two prior grand jury reports, calling the county's since-changed travel reimbursement policy confusing, and claiming she believed she could claim travel costs based on a "per-diem" calculation.

Smith declined to directly answer questions about whether the amount she paid was for the travel reimbursement, or about why she paid the amount back.

Instead, she said in a written statement to the Daily Journal, "As a matter of principle I was interested in seeing this issue reviewed in court. Earlier this year it was. I gave a comprehensive statement to the court. The judge found no wrongdoing on my part and ruled in my favor. That's what I was looking for. The BOS (Board of Supervisors) travel policy in question was changed more than three years ago, my statement to the court still stands, the issue of the money has been addressed so everyone should be able to move forward now."

Bruce Anderson, publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, filed a taxpayer lawsuit against Smith in small claims court in December to recoup the money for the county's taxpayers.

Mendocino County Superior Court Judge John Behnke heard the case in January, and said he would either issue an opinion that the court doesn't have jurisdiction to order Smith, as an elected official, to repay the amount, or deny Anderson's claim.

"If there is some misuse of public funds, the DA ... is supposed to investigate and exercise their discretion," Behnke said during the Jan. 5 court hearing.

Anderson's claim came after former Mendocino County District Attorney Meredith Lintott refused to prosecute Smith, saying there was no evidence that Smith meant to defraud the county.

The grand jury questioned the travel reimbursements last year, and Lintott ordered Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford to dock Smith's pay for the $3,087, noting that Ford herself calculated Smith owed that amount.

Ford said she calculated the amount at the grand jury's request, and asked for a legal opinion from County Counsel Jeanine Nadel before she would dock Smith's pay. Nadel forwarded the matter to the Sonoma County Counsel's Office, citing a conflict of interest, and that office opined that the payment couldn't be deducted from Smith's payroll checks without a court order.

"This is wonderful news," Anderson said Monday, adding that the $3,087 Smith paid back was likely "only about a third" of what she owes the county for travel reimbursements she claimed but didn't travel.

"If it were you or me, and there was a civil judgment against us, we would be ordered to pay back the amount with interest," he said.

Tiffany Revelle can be reached at, or at 468-3523

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