Missoula responds to NBC Montana credit card investigation


MISSOULA, Mont. - We're following up on our NBC Montana investigation into the way Missoula spends taxpayer money on credit card bills.

Last month we told you how we reviewed four months of credit card statements that averaged $30,000 a month.

Our work uncovered employees are spending an average of $1,000 a month on food -- items like meals, ice, water and tips. Then there are the travel bills we tracked; we found an average of over $5,000 a month spent on trips to British Columbia, Virginia, California and Nevada.

When we first did the story we asked to talk to the mayor. John Engen declined and instead sent us to the supervisor of Central Services.

Now, one month after our stories aired, we've found a letter from city spokeswoman Ginny Merriam to city council members. In it she explains some of the purchases we found, but her letter doesn't answer why city procedure isn't being followed.

In Merriam's letter she says we implied city staff members are using credit cards inappropriately.

Click here to read Ginny Merriam's full letter.

She also sent council members Missoula's credit card policy. City Administrative Rule 32 outlines how employees should use credit cards. We found there were 46 employees with credit cards with a combined total open credit limit of $236,000.

Merriam's letter offers the city's explanation to some of the randomly selected 26 transactions we requested in our investigation.

We found assistant Development Services director Don Verrue spent over $2,300 in two months at stores like Cabela's, Sportsman's Warehouse and Murdoch's on clothing.

On the list -- a $179 pair of waterproof Keen boots, $52 Carhartt pants and a $25 graphic T-shirt.

We're told it's part of the six building inspectors' $325 a year clothing allowance allowed under collective bargaining.

Merriam writes the inspectors used Verrue's city-issued credit card to buy their clothing. You can see their signatures on these receipts.

Merriam's letter says, once the shopping is finished, Verrue scrutinizes the receipt before signing it.

But what about the $100 pair of Keen water sandals one inspector purchased? Merriam calls that an innovation, a way for employees to do a final inspection on new floors without wearing socks.

We also told you about $46 spent to buy Skullcandy earbuds. This again appears on Verrue's credit card, but Merriam writes the department's administrative services manager bought them on sale for two workers to participate in phone conferences without bothering co-workers and two others to transcribe meeting minutes.

Then there is the $132 ribeye steak dinner billed at Guy's Lolo Creek Steakhouse. Here is the explanation we found in Merriam's letter -- it was a thank you dinner from Missoula's fire training officer and assistant chief for two Spokane Valley fire department officials for advanced EMS training for which Spokane refused compensation.

So how does this all fit in with City Administrative Rule 32? Here's what we found in that rule -- employees must have their supervisor or the director sign off on their statements, each purchase needs a receipt, meals are not allowed unless advance travel funds have not been provided and all purchases need a system purchase order.

A city purchase order must also be filled out, and policy says it needs a detailed description of the item, its cost and the accounting code used to book it.

When we sent an email to Merriam asking for "signed, approved purchase orders and receipts" from the transactions we selected, we did not receive a single purchase order in our request.

Merriam's letter provides no explanation for that. Instead she ends her letter by saying city employees serve the public proudly "with a high service ethic" and "current checks and procedures in place."