DESTIN, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - An investigation into the use of credit cards by elected officials in Destin has found no criminal wrongdoing.
The findings were announced Tuesday.
State Attorney Bill Eddins launched an investigation into charges on city-issued credit cards in October for all 34 city employees. City officials initially requested in investigation into why City Manager Greg Kisela used his city-issued card for a personal purchase. Eddins broadened that to include all city employees.
What Eddins found was three city employees made unofficial purchases on their City credit cards. Greg Kisela ($61.30), Tim Pietenpol ($174.80) and Webb Warren ($3.99). According to the investigation report, all of these purchases have been deemed “accidental.” All three employees filed “written, signed memos at the time of the accidental charges and promptly reimbursed the City. They also had no hesitation in explaining what happened when asked during our investigation.”
The investigation also looked into purchases by Mayor Mel Ponder and Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell.
Ponder charged two meals to his purchasing card while on City travel on two occasions: the Florida League of Cities Conference in August 2014 and August 2015.
According to the investigation report, “Mayor Ponder candidly explained that he did not realize at the time that he was not supposed to charge meals to the card while on City travel, and on each occasion he was only told to reimburse the City. He confirmed to us that no written policy was provided to him and that he knew the card was for official City business. Indeed, the charges were made in the course of City travel, and Mayor Ponder explained that he did not have any indication that there was a problem with him using the City card for meals while on City travel.
There is no evidence to suggest Mayor Ponder used the purchasing card with the intent to violate City policy or the law.”
Ramswell had the greatest number of changes and total amount for meals or personal purchases on her City card compared with the other four individuals who made such charges, according to the investigation report. However, according to the report, “multiple witnesses also confirmed that she travels more than the other City officials due to her positions with the Florida League of Cities as well as Florida Is For Veterans, which gives rise to increased potential for needing to make reimbursements to the City, whether for meals on City travel or accidental personal purchases.”
The report continued, “Ms. Ramswell was able to provide legitimate explanations for the various charges made to her card for which she reimbursed the City. The documents provided by the City of Destin show that many of the charges on Ms. Ramswell’s card were for meals while on City travel, including the same Florida League of Cities Conferences in 2014 and 2015 where May Ponder also purchased meals.”
When it came to reimbursing the City for charges made, Eddins’ investigation found, “It is also worth mentioning that a specific timetable for reimbursement was never given to Ms. Ramswell. On one occasion she reimbursed the City five days after the statement date. The longest repayment was three months when she was waiting for reimbursement from the State.”
The investigation concluded, “There is no evidence of criminal intent by any of the five cardholders who made unofficial purchases…there is insufficient evidence to establish probably cause that any crime has been committed. As such, no criminal charges should be filed.”
The investigation did make several recommendations regarding Destin and its purchasing card policies. “First and foremost, a written policy should be developed to cover the elected officials who choose to receive City purchasing cards.” Right now, elected officials and city employees have two different standards when it comes to purchasing cards. City employees have to sign a document indicating they have received and understand the Purchasing Card Policy. Elected officials do not.
The report also recommends establishing definite timeframes for reimbursements to be made to the City as well as requiring all cardholders to submit a memorandum detailing accidental personal charges and how they occured.
The report also says “direct language should be used when counseling a cardholder on the use of the card. During our investigation, we heard vague statements along the lines of cardholders being told they ‘should not charge meals to the card because it complicates things since they’re given per diem.’… Furthermore, written counseling or warnings would be helpful to create a record of what a cardholder was told and how many times he or she has been counseled. Each of these recommendations would not only provide useful evidence in the event of a criminal investigation, but more generally whey would provide greater transparency and accountability for those elected or employed by the city of Destin.”
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