SAN JOSE -- In July, San Jose Councilman Sam Liccardo charged $54.19 worth of flowers on his city credit card for one of his staff members. A few weeks later, Dennis Hawkins, then city clerk, sent him a note to repay the city because it exceeded allowable amounts.
The overage? $4.19.
Liccardo was hardly the only San Jose council member the clerk called out for charges exceeding or conflicting with city policy. Also asked to pay back the city for improper expenses last year were Kansen Chu, Rose Herrera, Don Rocha and Nancy Pyle, who finished her final term in December.
While Santa Clara County is cracking down on officials' credit cards after Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. was found to have rung up almost $30,000 in improper or questionable expenses, a review of San Jose council member charges suggests the city has kept a sharp eye on its elected leaders' credit card spending.
"That was my job, to apply the policy," said Hawkins, who now works for the county's legal department. "I took those things pretty seriously, and when things were not consistent with the policy, I requested that the council member reimburse the city. And they did."
Not that county officials didn't scrutinize any employee credit card use. Assessor Larry Stone has noted that one of his staff members got called out for going 12 cents over a meal allowance. But County Executive Jeff Smith suggested low-level county employees may have been intimidated to question some expenses of the elected board members. He has since put Chief Operating Officer Gary Graves in charge of that.
In San Jose, expenses for which the clerk, appointed directly by the council, demanded reimbursement last year appeared to total less than $2,000 for all the council members, based on available records.
Several council members asked to repay charges last year said the clerk's office had been more stringent in 2012 about billings that in past years were allowed. Herrera was surprised when the clerk sought repayment for $185 worth of tickets to an awards lunch in February hosted by Hillel of Silicon Valley, on grounds it's a religious group.
"He somehow felt it had to be more stringent, which is fine with me," Herrera said. "We've had a pretty good system here to make sure these cards are not abused. I think the clerk's oversight's good, and there's transparency."
When Chu's wife joined the councilman on an official trip to Boston, a Chu staff member accidentally billed the city instead of Chu's personal card for the additional expense. The councilman reimbursed the city $95 after being alerted by the city clerk.
It did not appear that Mayor Chuck Reed was asked to repay the city for credit card purchases last year. Reed charged relatively little -- less than $2,000 a year over 24 months -- to his own card, delegating many routine office purchases to his staff.
The clerk's office did question a $200.61 charge on Reed's card for a December 2011 lunch at Taqueria Tlaquepaque that wasn't accompanied by an itemized receipt. The mayor's office explained it was an employee-recognition lunch for him and 20 staff members. That would come to less than $10 each.
Records over the past few years show wide disparity in credit card charges among the council members, and often from one 12-month period to another for each elected official. Often it is a reflection of the extent to which they delegate purchasing to their staff.
Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen, for example, had no credit card charges in a 12-month period from October 2010 through September 2011. Over the next 12 months, she would personally charge just $1,641, less than the mayor or any other council member during that period.
Nguyen's chief of staff, Louansee Moua, handled most of the office's purchasing. For example, on July 15 she charged $2,012 for 700 T-shirts promoting the "National Night Out" anti-crime event in her district.
Reed's highest charge in two years was the $945 airfare he paid for a council-approved trip to Japan in 2011 to lobby All Nippon Airways to schedule regular San Jose-Tokyo flights. The trip paid off -- ANA initiated San Jose-Tokyo service though it has been suspended because of problems with its Boeing 787 jets.
Reed also rung up a $480 bill to stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia on July 19. The posh hotel was the site of the U.S. Conference of Mayors summer leadership meeting, for which the city approves the mayor's attendance. Council members did charge meals at restaurants and cafes, though they were infrequent. City policy allows use of public funds for meals and nonalcoholic beverages in limited circumstances, such as staff meetings or trainings that run into the lunch hour or recognition events where the city hosts individuals or groups. The policy also allows council members to charge food for city-sponsored events open to the public.
Council members may buy tickets to fundraisers of civic, cultural, educational or charitable organizations providing services to city residents or businesses for themselves and a staff member, spouse or partner, so long as it's not a religious or political group.
One interesting aspect of the allowed charitable fundraisers that council members or their staffs billed to the city is that many were events that advertised meals with wine, cocktails, or wine tastings. Though city policy expressly prohibits spending public money on alcohol, city clerks considered such events acceptable.
Hawkins' predecessor, Lee Price, has returned to the office to assist since his departure, added that unless the drinks were itemized expenses they weren't considered a problem.
"If it's all-inclusive, we wouldn't have any reason to disallow something like that," Price said. "They might stop by, they may eat, may drink, they may just do the drop-bys. The money is more going toward fundraising than to pay for whatever token meal or snack they might get."
Liccardo said attending such events is part of the job but added that he seldom has time to partake in the fare and is more often limited to just saying hellos.
"There's an expectation," Liccardo said, "that public officials attend community events in the community."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.
Reimbursements sought from San Jose City Council members in 2012, in order of dates:
Kansen Chu, $43.07, for Jan. 26 purchase of memorial flowers. (City policy limits constituent recognition to $50; flower charges totaled $93.06.)
Rose Herrera, $185.40, Feb. 28, Hillel of Silicon Valley. (State law prohibits contributions of public funds to religious institutions.)
Nancy Pyle, $250, April 23, Bowling for Badges. (Policy allows up to two tickets, but she purchased two additional tickets for staff members.)
Chu, $95, April 24, National League of Cities conference in Boston; registered wife. (Policy doesn't permit registering spouses for travel.)
Sam Liccardo, $75, June 12, SPUR membership dues. (Policy doesn't allow membership dues except for governmental organizations.)
Liccardo, $4.19, July 23, amount over $50 for flowers purchased for staffer. (Policy limits employee recognition to $50 a year).
Liccardo, $140, Aug. 31, Bellarmine College Prep. (State law prohibits contributions of public funds to religious institutions.)
Don Rocha, $50, Aug. 23, San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber PAC BBQ; $78, Aug. 23, Men of Emerge event. (Policy prohibits contributions of public funds to political groups.)
Liccardo, $100, Sept. 6, Notre Dame High School, women of impact luncheon. (State law prohibits contributions of public funds to religious institutions.)