NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - As the State Legislative Auditor launches an investigation into the use of city credit cards by council members, FOX 8 has obtained public documents that reveal exactly what those council members have bought on your tab.
According to the City of New Orleans' own policy, council members shouldn't use their city-issued credit card to buy alcohol or gift cards. But through a public records request, we found Councilman Jason Williams bought both. Williams says that was a mistake that was quickly corrected and reimbursed.
Williams explained why a beer showed up on his credit card receipt from a Hooters in Mississippi, where he was attending a conference.
"I can tell you right now no self-respecting Division 1 football player ever drinks just one beer. There was at least three beers. They were supposed to be on a separate receipt. As you can see, the waitress put one of the Michelob Ultras on the wrong receipt. As soon as we realized that error had been done, we reimbursed the City Council credit card," said Williams.
We also found he bought 10 gift cards in 2015. The receipt says it was for community development.
"I on a very regular basis I give gift cards, 10 dollar Walgreen's gift cards to senior citizens centers throughout the entire community. Every single time we've done that I use my personal credit card to do that. A new staffer grabbed the wrong card when she was buying those gift cards for the Lower Nine Senior Center. We realized it had been done and we reimbursed the council card the same billing cycle," said Williams.
Williams also bought a 55-inch TV that cost nearly $400 with his city card. But he says for good reason.
"That TV is right behind you right now. You can take a picture of it if you want. The TV of that size was the exact same price on sale as models that were much smaller. It was an amazing deal," said Williams. "It's usually on cable access watching committee hearings that I'm not a part of so I can make sure I'm up to date on what's going on, HDLC and other committee meetings or on the Weather Channel when we have a storm in the Gulf."
Williams also purchased two $90 sleeping bags. But, there was no description written on that receipt or the one for the TV as to why Williams needed to use his city card to buy them.
"Those sleeping bags were also purchased with the credit card because they're important to my work as a council member. When we evacuate the city, I and one staff member don't get to evacuate. It's our responsibility and our commitment to stay in this office during a mandatory evacuation," said Williams.
Council member Susan Guidry gave $2,300 to Greater New Orleans Inc. with her card and made a more than $800 purchase at Sherwin Williams.
In a statement Guidry said:
"First, a charge for Greater New Orleans, Inc. for a Canvas Workshop in Panama in September 2016 was to explore economic development, strategy, and growth opportunities between Panama and the Port of New Orleans. Secondly, a charge made to Sherwin Williams in June 2013 was to paint the District A office suite, which appeared not to have been painted since the Morrison administration."
Credit card statements also revealed a $2,600 purchase made by Council Member Jared Brossett this year for leadership tuition
In a statement Brossett said:
"I've used my card appropriately for legitimate city purposes and kept accurate records as required during my tenure on the City Council.
The Council for a Better Louisiana's (CABL) Leadership Louisiana program focuses on many of the policy initiatives that I am pursuing for my constituents as a New Orleans City Councilmember. It's a respected program that helps leaders across our state address critical issues and implement long-term transformative policies."
Williams says each City Council member can spend about $35,000 per year on their city credit card. But, he says every single council member during this past term did not reach that allotted budget. Instead, he says they always send money back to the General Fund. He adds that allowed yearly budget for city credit cards was recently lowered.
The entire council released the following statement:
The purpose of a City Council office "other operating" budget and Councilmember access to a credit card is to allow the purchase of items and services they see as necessary to the administration of their office. These purchases are at the discretion of each Councilmember and include but are not limited to various supplies and furnishings, to invest in government training and professional development expenses, and to conduct constituent outreach and communications as each Councilmember sees fit.
The New Orleans City Council is a separate, independent branch of government comprised of seven independently elected members with our own separate duties, responsibilities and policies. We are not a department of the Mayor and are not required to follow the Mayor's purchasing plan. In fact, in many cases, it is cheaper to independently find the lowest price for office supplies rather than to simply purchase them through the City's contracted supplier. Each member is guided by the policy in place and makes that determination for his or her own office.
The New Orleans City Council has a fiscal and administrative policy in place regarding the use of its budget. This policy outlines what items are not to be purchased. While there is always room for policy and practices to be reviewed and updated, it is important to note that this Council has consistently spent less than its allocated budget and returned dollars to the general fund.
For at least the last three years, this Council returned money to the general fund. Additionally, we lowered our budget allocation for each Council office from $40,000 to $35,000 in 2014 and again from $35,000 to $30,000 in 2017. The Council's budget as a whole decreased $511,730 from 2016 to 2017.
We continue to cooperate with all requests for disclosures of our use of taxpayer dollars. As elected officials and public servants, we hold that transparency is the base standard by which we conduct ourselves.