Minner’s expenses called into question

Political trips charged to state, records show

By GINGER GIBSON

The News Journal

In the waning months of her administration, with Delaware’s budget sinking into a projected $606 million deficit, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner spent thousands in state funds on political trips, including campaign appearances in support of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, expenses that could violate a law prohibiting state spending for “any political committee or candidate.”

Minner could not recall Friday exactly how she paid for campaign appearances in Iowa and at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August. But records obtained by The News Journal clearly show she charged taxpayers more than $1,000 for the partisan travel to Iowa and more than $3,000 for the convention.

Minner said she thought she had paid for some of the Iowa trip with leftover campaign funds, but a check of her end-of-year report with the state elections office shows just one payment of $480.20 to the state, not nearly enough to cover all her expenses. It is unclear what debt the $480.20 was used to repay. Her campaign fund had $18,824.25 available in January, the leftovers of two bids for governor and her years as lieutenant governor and in the Legislature. Using untapped campaign funds is a legal way to pay for trips such as those Minner took to Iowa and Denver.

Minner thought her Iowa trip included a meeting of governors and senators for the Policy Consensus Initiative, a think tank she co-chairs, but she wasn’t sure. “When I traveled, it was because of a group that I belong to as a member or it was for economic development reasons,” Minner said. “We traveled to a lot of places and brought in a lot of business for the state.”

Sarah Giles, program coordinator for PCI, said the group did not host a meeting in Iowa in September.

Minner also thought Obama for America paid for her Iowa expenses, but Gov. Jack Markell’s office could not find a record of any repayment Friday. The White House press office directed inquiries about campaign spending to the Democratic National Party. Michael Czin, spokesman for the DNC, said if Minner’s expenses were reimbursed by Obama for America, it might take several days to verify.

According to the Obama campaign and Iowa Democratic Party fliers, Minner spent the bulk of her Iowa trip headlining a Polk County Democrats fundraiser and two women’s rallies for Obama, a dinner in Ames and a luncheon in Knoxville.

She ran up a $1,160.93 bill in Iowa, including $100 in cash for “tips” and $208.24 at the 801 Steak and Chop House. Two employees who still work in the governor’s office could not recall a reason other than partisan politics for the Iowa trip. Her charges also include $271.88 for lodging at a Des Moines Marriott, $364.48 for a rental car that she used for three days and $524.57 for other expenses, including food, three additional pieces of luggage on the airplane and parking fees.

Minner said she never handled any of the bills or receipts for her travel, so her security team must have used her government Visa card to cover the $3,037.77 trip to Denver for the Democratic National Convention in August, including $2,517.82 for lodging at the Marriott in south Denver, a $241.55 bill at another steak house, two other meals and $160 for parking at the Philadelphia airport.

Joe Rogalsky, spokesman for Minner’s successor, Markell, said the Denver expenses were repaid by Minner. But as of Friday, Rogalsky said the governor’s office was unable to locate evidence of any reimbursements for Minner’s other trips in the last six months of her term, including her time campaigning in Iowa.

State Auditor Tom Wagner said state code prohibits using the state’s credit card for non-state business, and that using it for campaigning is “even worse.”

“I can’t fathom using the state issued credit card for anything political,” Wagner said. “There is no way [Minner] should put anything of that nature on a state credit card.”

Wagner said because of past issues when state employees said they mistakenly charged personal expenses on state credit cards thinking it was their personal card, the card has been altered to clearly indicate it’s a Delaware card.

Minner used her state-issued Visa – the card used under the statewide Super Card program – to pay for expenses related to the Iowa and Denver trips. State policy prohibits the use of Super Cards for such things as “personal or unauthorized purposes” and “meals, travel, entertainment, or any expense not related to state government.”

The policy also states that any “cardholder who makes unauthorized purchases or carelessly uses the Super Card will be liable for the total dollar amount of such unauthorized purchases plus any administrative fees … The cardholder will also be subject to disciplinary and possibly criminal action.”

Joining Minner in Denver were New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, but neither spent state money on their trips, according to their offices. Rendell, who is president of the National Governors Association, spoke at the convention but paid for his trip with leftover campaign funds, according to Chuck Ardo, Rendell’s press secretary.

“There is no way he would have ever thought about charging the state for his travel,” Ardo said. The state does not pay for political trips, Ardo said, including some of Rendell’s travels as NGA president. When Rendell travels to Washington, D.C., to conduct business for Pennsylvania – for instance, recent trips to lobby Congress for stimulus money – the state might pick up some of the tab.

Robert Corrales, Corzine’s deputy press secretary, said New Jersey law bars the use of state funds for political functions. Corzine paid for his trip to Denver out of his own pocket, Corrales said.

Slow to answer request

Minner’s office did not release the travel documents until the last business day of her second term as governor. The News Journal first asked for the documents through a Freedom of Information request filed on Dec. 16, more than a month earlier.

While she was in office, Minner’s staff refused to release her trip schedules, claiming an exemption under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. William Bush, Minner’s legal counsel who now works for the House, said the exemption has been used to conceal Minner’s schedule from the public since she took office.

Attorney General’s Office spokesman Jason Miller declined to comment on Minner’s expenses. Delaware’s attorney general, Biden’s son Beau, also traveled to Iowa to campaign for his dad and Obama. Beau Biden is on leave from the state after deploying with his National Guard unit to Iraq. Miller said Beau Biden did not spend state money on his father’s campaign.

With the state facing a budget crisis, Minner froze jobs and asked for 7 percent cuts, but placed no restrictions on her travel budget.

Over the last six months of 2008, Minner spent $13,180 of her annual $14,000 travel budget, some of which she later repaid. From July to December, Minner made eight trips out of state.

Minner’s six-month travel bill does not include expenses she may have incurred in January, attending the Capitol Hill swearing-in of Sen. Ted Kaufman or inaugural events for Kaufman’s former boss, Vice President Biden. Nor is it clear if the total accounts for the travel expenses of her bodyguard or other security, figures Delaware officials refused to disclose to The News Journal.

The trips had another compounding expense: lawmakers and other state officials sometimes accompanied Minner on her trips. Because receipts for lawmakers’ travel are maintained by the General Assembly’s staff, those records do not fall under the state’s FOIA legislation and are not available to the public. A bill awaiting debate in the House would remove such exemptions for the General Assembly.

For a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Sen. Thurman Adams, Rep. George Carey and Rep. Helene Keeley joined the governor during her stay at the Frenchman’s Reef Marriott Hotel on the resort island of St. Thomas. The longtime political colleagues were attending the Council of State Governments’ Eastern Region executive committee meeting. In December, The News Journal requested the Virgin Islands travel expenses for Adams, Carey and Keeley, but the state Office of Management and Budget denied the request, saying those records are housed with the General Assembly, which is exempt.

At that conference, Minner made a presentation about then-President-elect Obama’s November visit to the National Governors Association meeting in Philadelphia. The only problem was, Minner did not attend the Dec. 2 meeting in Philadelphia with Obama. Neither at the time nor since has she said why she gave a presentation about an event she did not attend.

Minner said in an interview Friday that she opted to travel to the Virgin Islands because she was invited to speak at the conference. “At that time, we knew times were bad, but we knew we were going to do some of that on our own.”

When pressed in December by The News Journal, Minner’s spokeswoman, Kate Bailey, said the Virgin Islands trip cost Delaware taxpayers $1,120 for lodging and airfare. But trip documents obtained by the newspaper place the cost at $4,816.92, not including airfare. According to those documents, Minner billed the state for $4,261.83 in lodging, $335.09 for food, $180 for parking in Philadelphia and a $40 charge for luggage on U.S. Airways. It’s unclear who paid for Minner’s airfare, and the governor said she didn’t know.

In October, Minner led a trade mission to Europe accompanied by then-Office of Management and Budget Director Jennifer “JJ” Davis, John Pastor of OMB’s international trade section and Dr. Vidadi Yusibov, executive director of the Fraunhofer Center for Molecular Biotechnology in Newark. They visited Germany and England to meet with officers of companies with operations in Delaware.

According to documents obtained by The News Journal, Minner’s office recorded only a $243 expense for the European trip, covering parking at the Newark, N.J., airport and airfare for Davis. Davis said then she had to leave early because of a scheduling conflict.

At the time, Bailey told The News Journal the estimated cost for the trip was $15,000, which would be charged to the state. As a trade mission, the trip could have fallen under money allocated for travel by the Delaware Economic Development Office. A DEDO spokesman did not immediately return calls for comment.

No announcements

During her administration, Minner made a policy of refusing to publicly announce trips before boarding a jet, citing security. She often did not disclose a visit until after she had reached a destination, such as Germany in 2008 or Paris in 2006, trips that cost Delaware taxpayers thousands of dollars. But for trips abroad, Minner’s office generally released a statement about the value of currying favor with heads of state and heads of foreign corporations.

For instance, while in London in October, Minner met with Anthony Jenkins, chief executive officer of Barclaycard, a London credit card and consumer lending company that employs about 1,000 at its U.S. credit card headquarters in Wilmington. After the trip, Minner said Barclaycard might double its Delaware work force within the next two years.

In late summer and fall 2008, Minner made a series of trips that she didn’t disclose publicly before departing, during her stay, or upon return.

In November, Minner traveled to College Station, Texas, home of Texas A&M University, to receive an award for her work to fight cancer in Delaware. The award was being given by former President George H. W. Bush. No notice of the visit was released by Minner’s office, but a Duchess County, N.Y., news release recently found on the county’s Web site mentions that Minner would be in Texas to accept the award along with one of the county’s officials.

Minner charged the state $1,085.72 for the trip, returning one day before a special meeting of the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council, which announced a drastic drop in state revenues. Minner’s office immediately slashed spending for state agencies.

Minner also took a trip to Utah in September to attend the the Policy Consensus Initiative’s biannual board meeting. Giles said Minner, who co-chairs the board, attended the conference at the Homestead Golf Resort in Midway, charging the state $575.83 for a rental car and $100 for parking at Philadelphia International Airport.

In August, the governor spent $1,029.46 to attend the Council of State Governments’ Eastern Regional Conference in Atlantic City. The costs included a $350 registration fee. She billed the state $679.46 for one night at Caesars Atlantic City Hotel and Casino, even though the conference was held half a mile away at the Sheraton, where a Saturday night room in August started at $125 a night. Minner said the room at Caesar’s was booked by the conference, which split attendees between the two facilities, and she was in the group placed at Caesars.

A reservations clerk with Caesars said the room listed on Minner’s receipt is a deluxe room and that the price is normal for a Saturday night during peak season. According to the hotel, a deluxe room will make you “feel like you’re walking on hallowed ground as you traverse the dazzling, modern hallways to your guest room,” and includes dark wood furniture, artistic lighting and a flat-screen television.

In July, Minner charged the state $1,138.39 for two nights at the Philadelphia Ritz Carlton during the National Governors Association annual meeting where former President Bill Clinton addressed a bipartisan group of governors.

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