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San Diego City Comptroller Ken Whitfield said he tried to hold down costs when it came to Mayor Bob Filner’s controversial spending on his trip to Paris and use of city credit cards, but Filner deputies pushed back or overrode his decisions.
Whitfield said Friday Filner violated city rules by charging personal items on his taxpayer-funded credit card and that Filner Chief of Staff Lee Burdick argued a $128.94 NutriBullet blender was a business expense before relenting and paying for it with a personal check.
Whitfield also said he denied a request to increase the city credit card limit to pay for non-coach class airfare for the mayor’s security detail to Paris because city policies require employees to fly coach. Chief Financial Officer Greg Bych later agreed to raise the limit. Filner went to Paris to speak in support of an Iranian dissident group.
It’s rare for someone as high-level as the mayor not to follow city rules, said Whitfield, who as comptroller oversees city finances. He said he was unaware of any other situation where a city credit card was canceled, as the mayor’s later was, or of anyone else who hadn’t paid his or her bill.
“In a 10,000-person organization people do things all the time where you scratch your head and say, ‘You should know better,’” Whitfield said. “Usually, it doesn’t happen with senior executives. Certainly they should know better.”
The Credit Card
Filner and others in his office charged more than $11,000 for various expenses, including a trip to Mexico and charges at the Westgate hotel across the street from City Hall. Filner’s office failed to pay the bill, which was four months overdue. With increasing alarm, Whitfield, in emails obtained by U-T San Diego, told the mayor’s office to pay the bill. Eventually, it did, but the mayor admitted that $975.08 were personal expenses. That violates the city’s credit card policy.
Whitfield said the city’s oversight process for its credit card policies ultimately worked.
“The mayor, he didn’t turn in receipts,” he said. “Guess what? His bill never got paid and for good reason.”
Originally, a NutriBullet blender wasn’t on the list of the mayor’s personal expenses when the bill was divided up. Whitfield said city departments don’t get to expense things like microwaves, small refrigerators or even bottled water, so he balked at the blender.
“I don’t want this story turning into NutriBullet-gate,” he said.
Whitfield said Burdick tried to argue the city should pay for the blender, but relented and cut a personal check to pay for it.
Burdick said neither she nor Filner had ever approved the blender purchase, and that it was OK’d by Former Filner chief of staff Vince Hall. (In a text message, Hall confirmed he approved the blender after staff requested it.)
Burdick said she believed Hall considered the blender a healthier alternative to the coffee and Coke machines in almost every department. The comptroller’s office, Burdick said, agreed to consider whether the city could pay for it because Hall had signed off on it.
“Quite simply, it was never one of the mayor’s expenses,” Burdick said.
She said once she was informed of Whitfield’s decision, she paid for it immediately.
The Paris Trip
In the week before the mayor’s late June trip to Paris, the San Diego Police Department requested its credit card limit be increased to pay for the mayor’s security detail to accompany him.
When the request came in, Whitfield said he checked Travelocity for the time of the trip and saw there were plenty of coach seats available. City rules require employees to fly coach.
“I denied the request,” Whitfield said.
Soon after, Bych reversed Whitfield and increased the credit card limit. Airfare for the mayor’s two-person security detail cost $16,462. Ultimately, the security detail wound up missing its flight and the officers were re-booked – in coach, ironically. Whitfield said the airline was reimbursing the city for the cost difference.
Bych told VOSD he approved the higher credit card limit because the trip had been ordered by the mayor’s office through the Human Resources Department, and the Police Department had certain requirements for its security detail to travel.
“I believe that the HR staff got the best available seats at the lowest cost that met the security detail’s requirements,” Bych said.
Bych contended in a memo to Audit Committee Chairman Kevin Faulconer, who is investigating the trip, that all city procedures were followed.
Whitfield Had No Problem Saying No
Whitfield said he did not have any problem denying the mayor’s office’s requests. He said the best advice he’s received came from his boss from his first job: Always put some money away so that you have the independence to say no, even to people above you.
“I’ve got a lot of fucking money in the bank,” Whitfield said. “It allows me to sleep at night. It allows me to do my job with a whole lot integrity and not worry about losing it.”