[StBernard] St. Bernard Parish credit card used for expensive meals, bike gear

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sat Mar 10 10:01:11 EST 2012

St. Bernard Parish credit card used for expensive meals, bike gear

Published: Friday, March 09, 2012, 9:30 PM

By Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, The Times-Picayune

Taxpayer money was spent on bicycle supplies, marathons and numerous meals
and travel under former St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro, a
Times-Picayune review of parish credit card records shows. A few of the
meals included alcohol -- a violation of state law -- and despite a
stringent parish policy, hardly any documentation was kept for many of the
purchases and meals, so determining where money specifically went is

Also, if the purchase was officially authorized at all, it typically
involved Taffaro or his chief administrative officer, Col. David Dysart,
signing off for their own expenses about a month or two after the fact.

Taffaro, who lost his re-election bid in November, is now the state's
director of hazard mitigation and recovery. Dysart, Taffaro's right-hand man
who often resembled a sentry by his side, is now Jefferson Parish's
emergency management director.

St. Bernard Parish government charged about $180,000 to credit cards from
2008 to 2012, records show. The credit card information was provided by St.
Bernard Parish government in response to a public records request from The

After the newspaper began reviewing the documents, the Metropolitan Crime
Commission picked up a copy of the credit card expenses as well.

"We are in the process of reviewing the records we have obtained, and once
we have completed a review, we will refer it to an appropriate agency if we
feel it warrants that," MCC president Rafael Goyeneche added.

Among the charges reviewed by The Times-Picayune were reams of expensive
meals that totaled about $10,000 of taxpayer money; another $1,000 to
deliver food to employees during meetings; hotel stays totaling about
$30,000 in cities such as Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas; several last-minute
plane tickets to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal officials, costing
more than $1,000 apiece; and many purchases with no apparent ties to parish

Bicycles and lingerie store

In July 2008, Taffaro made an unspecified $679.68 purchase at Le Jouet, a
specialty toy store in Metairie that also carries bicycles. There is no
explanation for the expenditure other than a small scrawl in the margins of
that month's Visa bill stating "Admin Travel etc."

In April 2008, Taffaro, an avid cyclist, charged $739.51 on the parish
credit card at the Bicycle Connection in Metairie. In the margin next to the
charge, Taffaro wrote "green transportation." He reimbursed the parish for
that purchase in May 2008, records show.

Another charge, in April 2010, is for $60.88 at Bicycle World in Jefferson
Parish. Taffaro purchased six nutrition bars at $1.50 a piece and then $47
worth of "accessories," according to the receipt that gives no further

The same day as the Bicycle World charge, the parish credit card was used to
buy a race event hat for $25.07 from World Triathlon Corp. And although no
official authorization is given in the records, a note in the monthly Visa
bill's margin states "pay per C.T."

The card also was used to pay $71.95 on Feb. 26, 2010, to the ACT Competitor
Group, with no official authorization or information on who requested it.
The ACT Competitor Group manages the Rock 'n' Roll New Orleans Marathon.

Taffaro, then 44 years old, ran the 2010 race, according to The
Times-Picayune's coverage of the event.

And on November 12, 2010, the parish's credit card was used for a $111.18
purchase from the Lipstick and Lingerie store in Arabi. The documentation
does not specify the product purchased. Alongside that charge,
"Reimbursement?" is written in large cursive letters, although no
reimbursement is noted in any of the documents.

Former president responds

Per Taffaro's request, The Times-Picayune submitted questions about the
credit card charges to him in writing last week. After several more
inquiries from the newspaper, Taffaro called Thursday and said he had not
had time to "vet through everything."

He said that "generally speaking, just talking off the top of my head," that
all the charges listed were either "reimbursed by me personally, charges
reimbursed by my campaign or charges that were made that were paid by the

When asked why certain charges specifically said they were reimbursed but
others did not, he said, "Perhaps they were reimbursed some other way, not
to the credit card."

Of charges that Taffaro reimbursed, such as several meals throughout the
years, all but the Bicycle Connection reimbursement came from his campaign

Pressed about specific charges, Taffaro said they were "made so long ago"
that he could not recall details. Regarding the Lipstick and Lingerie
charge, he said, "I believe I reimbursed that one." When asked what he
purchased there with the parish credit card, he said he couldn't remember,
but "there are only a few types of things there, candles, and then lipstick
and lingerie."

According to finance director Beverly Gariepy, Taffaro justified the
Lipstick and Lingerie purchase by saying the store was one of many ribbon
cuttings he had attended in the parish and that he apparently made it a
policy to purchase something at each business after its grand opening

Dining out, with alcohol

In the credit card records, meal expenses also are rampant, often with no
receipts or justification given.

On Jan. 9, 2011, the credit card was used to pay for a $550 meal at Mr. B's
in New Orleans. There was no documentation showing who was present or what
parish business was discussed.

Some meals also include the purchase of alcohol, which is explicitly
prohibited under state law. Although only a handful of itemized restaurant
meal receipts exist in the finance records, those that do show $44.95 spent
on alcohol.

A March 11, 2009, meal at Drago's in New Orleans -- listed as Taffaro and
Dysart interviewing a prospective public works director -- cost $195,
including six Abita Ambers totaling $30.

A $255 meal at Legal Seafood in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 28, 2009, includes
a $10.95 Grey Goose Vodka Cosmo. It's listed simply as a "meal for staff."

A $250 lunch at Brewster's in Chalmette for a "WWII Pearl Harbor Ceremony"
included two $2 beers, and a 25 percent tip. Often Taffaro would tip 25
percent or more if it brought the bill up to an even number, according to
other receipts.

Taffaro spent thousands of dollars at restaurants such as Emeril's, Luke,
Crescent City Steak House, Eleven 79, the Steak Knife, Jack Demsey's,
Vincent's Italian Cuisine, and Cannon's Bistro and Steamery in New Orleans;
Par 3 Restaurant, Brewster's and Rocky and Carlo's in Chalmette; Crabby J's
Seafood and Riverbend Bistro in Arabi; Plantation Bar and Grill in Meraux;
Andrea's Restaurant in Metairie; Landry's Seafood on Lakeshore Drive; and
Tony Cheng's Mongolian Restaurant in Washington D.C. Most have no receipts
and no explanation for the charges.

The parish also charged frequent Papa John's pizza, Popeyes or po-boy
lunches for employee "Cabinet meetings" in the government complex.

Mardi Gras in nation's capital

The February 2010 parish trip for "D.C. Mardi Gras," an event where local
politicians lobby federal representatives, was an extravagant affair on a
whole other scale. Nearly $10,000 was spent on the parish credit card for a
"Washington breakfast" reception for 180 people, with food costing about
$5,000 and alcohol and bar fees totaling about $500, with about $1,200 in
gratuity after tax and other fees. There also was a $2,000 room rental fee.

An additional $1,600 was spent for sound and video equipment for that event.

The D.C. trip in February 2011 was less extravagant, with apparently no
breakfast event. The only major expense came from the five parish officials'
flights and meals, totaling about $6,500. Their rooms at the Hilton Hotel in
D.C. that year cost between $345 and $375 a night.

The parish's credit card was also used for flights totaling about $30,000
during the period reviewed. The majority of flights were to D.C. and -- when
the purpose was listed -- involved testifying in oil spill-related matters
or meeting with federal officials. Flights elsewhere around the country
mainly were for conferences or staff member training.

Plenty of blanks

The local government required users of the parish credit card to record
their name, the date, the amount requested, the intended vendor, the item or
service to be purchased, and the justification on an authorization form to
be signed by either the parish president or chief administrative officer for
preliminary authorization, and then by the finance director for final

But the finance director rarely signed, and most of the other information
often was left vacant. In August 2011, Gariepy took over the department and
developed a new form that explicitly requires card users to explain the
"Public Purpose of Expense." At that point, use of the parish credit dropped

Taffaro took credit for instituting the changes at that time. Asked why he
implemented the changes, he said, "Because there was a lot of confusion in
terms of what was being reimbursed and how it was being reimbursed."

Everyone is now required to obtain the finance director's authorization
before making a purchase, Gariepy said. Throughout most of Taffaro and
Dysart's reign, it was common for Taffaro and Dysart to make a purchase and
sign for it a month or two later.

There is little supporting documentation for most of the parish credit card
purchases. If a receipt is present at all, it is usually not itemized,
making it impossible to determine whether alcohol was purchased, who
attended, or why the expense was necessary.

No Taffaro-era policy

The Taffaro administration did not write its own purchasing policy, instead
following rules set by the state's purchasing and travel office, according
to John Frank, who is now the assistant director of the parish's finance
department. Frank was interim director of the department for several years
under Taffaro before Gariepy stepped in.

According to state purchasing and travel rules, lodging rates can exceed
state limits, but "justification must be maintained in the file to show that
attempts were made with hotels in the area to receive the state/best rate."
Often during Taffaro's administration, hotel expenses exceeded the state
listed rates and no justification was provided.

And similar to hotels, the state has a tiered system for meals, whereby
maximum allowances for breakfast, lunch and dinner are given for various
locations around the country. When Taffaro took office, the state's maximum
allowance for meal reimbursement for a single day of travel was $24. When he
left office that had risen to $33, but, despite such increases, his
administration frequently dined far beyond such state caps.

Benjamin Alexander-Bloch can be reached at bbloch at timespicayune.com or

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