Tolbert: Improvements Seen In Legislative Expense Reimbursements

by Jason Tolbert (jasontcpa@yahoo.com) 8 views 

If you recall, a couple of years ago there was quite an uproar over the way our state legislators were reimbursed for their expenses.  Blue Hog blogger Matt Campbell conducted an exhaustive review of the documentation through his FOIA requests of their expenses and found that the support for their reimbursements was lacking, to say the least. His reporting led to a lawsuit which resulted in changes to the policy.

A copy of the new House policy and terms of the settlement agreement can be seen here.

I thought it was worth a look at how reimbursements have changed under the new rules. Without the time or patience to wade through 135 legislators, I decided to sample several House members. I requested the office reimbursements and reviewed the expenses of all the current House incumbents that are up for re-election this year and that have a general election opponent – 22 members – for the time period from November 1, 2012 through August 1, 2014.  This was done without regard to party affiliation and includes both Republican and Democrats.

What I found shows a change both in behavior and in extent of the documentation, although some questions still remain.

First, the good part…

The Honor Roll

Under the old system, almost every legislator took the maximum amount of reimbursement allowed with very little documentation.  My review found that three of the 22 state legislators actually took no reimbursement for office expenses and an additional two members took only a small amount for well-documented expenses.

Reps. David Kizzia of Malvern, Patti Julian of North Little Rock, and Stephen Magie of Conway did not turn in any requests for reimbursement for the period covered. Rep. Andy Davis of Little Rock turned in only two small requests for the time period for stamps that he purchased for legislative mailings and Rep. Fonda Hawthorne only turned in one request for some meals and mileage incurred while traveling on legislative business.

All 5 of these state legislators earn the gold star for saving taxpayers’ money. Kudos and thanks!

And now, some questionable areas…

The other 17 legislators take a good portion, if not all, of their allowable expenses which is set at $14,400 per year or $1,200 per month. Committee chairs get an additional amount to cover expenses related to their additional duties.

Office Expenses

The largest category is still reimbursements for “office expenses.” Although this was the case before the new policies, documentation of this expense has seen some improvement.  In the past, most legislators simply turned in their maximum monthly allowed expense backed up by little more than an invoice to themselves or an LLC they owned.  Now, the policy requires them to document the amount of space or percentage used in their home or office for legislative expenses as well as a letter for a real estate professional to support the value. Most did this with a couple of exceptions discussed below.

Ranging in amount from $120 to $1,500 in monthly reimbursements, 13 of the 22 legislators turned in something for office expenses. Rep. Tommy Wren turned in the most with $1,500, which includes legislative services (I will get address in the next section).

Rep. James Ratliff was second with $1,400 each month for office space and supplies at Martin Creek Farms LCC which is owned by RatliffA letter from Angie Gallaher with Scenic Rivers Realty estimates the “amortized cost” of a similar building is $1,400 per month. Ratliff says in a email on May 8, 2012 that the office is used “just for legislative office” when asked to estimate the percentage that is used for legislative expenses.

Similar documentation is shown for legislators turning in reimbursements for office expenses including – Jim Dotson ($1,228.81), Wes Wagner ($1,200), David Meeks ($1,170.44), John Wayne Catlett ($880), Tommy Thompson ($775), Scott Baltz ($600), Sheila E. Lampkin ($450), Richard Womack ($429), Harold Copenhaver ($357), Mike Holcomb ($300), and Mary Broadaway ($120).

Clerical Assistance

One area of curiosity is the reimbursement for “clerical assistance” claimed by seven legislators – five of whom pay a family member to perform these services. An additional two members also do this in a different format discussed later. The policy allows for this stating, “To the extent allowed by law, the member may employ a spouse, child or other family member to provide such services and seek reimbursement for the costs of employing such person or persons.”

Rep. Harold Copenhaver turned in a total of $3,455 in reimbursements in one quarterly settlement for amounts paid to his sons Austin and Myles and his wife Kathleen, during the period July 1, 2013 through September 30, 2013. Copenhaver included time sheets showing the hours worked by each of his children and wife at a rate of $10/hour.

Rep. Nate Bell requested $1,285.75 for August 2014 for Liberty Strategies LCC owned by his wife Phyllis Bell.  The invoice itemized the expenses showing a rate of $15/hour with time spent on social media monitoring/maintenance, local news monitoring/events, mail processing, phone calls/messaging/emails, and thank you notes.

Similar payments and documentation were found for Rep. Richard Womack to his wife Brandi Womack ($750/month), Homer Lenderman to his wife Linda Lenderman ($500/month), and John Catlett to his wife Cheri Catlett ($200/month).  Two other legislators appear to be paying unrelated persons for clerical services – Rep. Mary Broadaway paid about $720/month to Crystal Leisure (an employee of her law firm) and Rep. Bob Ballinger pays $500/month to Paul Phaneuf with Liberty Consulting.

Combo Expenses

Two other legislators – Tommy Wren and David Meeks – also pay family members, but include these amounts with their “office expense” reimbursements. The form states this category includes “office space, items and services furnished pursuant to written agreement and as a portion of expenses incurred in a member’s regular trade or business.”

Rep. Wren has what appears to be the least amount of documentation for his reimbursement of all 22 legislators reviewed. He is reimbursed $1,500 each month and shows a letter from First Community Bank showing the $1,500 has been transferred to an account in the name of himself and his wife Ann. A signed “Legislative Service Agreement” – a standard form provided by the House – is signed for 2014 with Ann E. Wren for $1,500/month.

Rep. David Meeks pays his wife Naomi Meeks just under $1,200/month with the amount varying slightly each month.  Meeks includes invoices and pay stubs each month from Paychex payroll services.  Meeks also has a signed “Legislative Service Agreement” on file with Naomi Meeks, Inc. similar to Wren’s contract but for a maximum annual amount of $18,000.

But also, some improvements…

‘Other Expenses’ Well-Documented

Other legislators used their annual allowed expenses for various expenses. Rep. Charlie Collins used most of his annual allowable reimbursement for a legislative newsletter ($8,469.11) and for Christmas cards ($1,135.89.) Both expenses were well-documented with invoices, copies of the checks for payment, and samples of the mailpieces.

Other expenses included reimbursement for mobile phone usage, mileage, meals, and other various supplies. Most of these expenses are well-documented by legislators. Phone invoices were submitted with allocation between personal and legislative use. Mileage logs were kept with explanations of legislative purposes for the trips. Receipts were submitted for meals with explanations regarding legislative reasons for the meal. In short, while there might be isolated errors, these other expense categories looked pretty clean and substantiated.

My overall impression from the review of the 22 legislators is that – while less than perfect – there have been improvements as a result of the new policy.

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