Charlottesville’s city credit card use policy is so vague and its oversight so lax that the city’s top prosecutor says intentional misuse of the cards would be difficult to prove in a criminal court case.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania told City Manager Chip Boyles in a letter sent Monday that there is nearly no way to prove misuse of the cards in court because employees have not been trained on which types of charges are acceptable and which are not.
The letter came after potential misuse of the cards was brought to the attention of Platania, who said he had discussed the issue twice before with city officials beginning in 2019.
“I am writing to reiterate, now for the third time, my position that our office will not prosecute any violations of the current credit card policy or the expenditure of city funds unless and until the city rewrites, clarifies and then retrains employees as to the proper usage of said cards and funds,” Platania wrote.
“If one day card usage or an expenditure is approved and then on the next, without any notice or training, that same usage or expenditure is considered potentially criminal, individuals will rightly complain that the policy is being unfairly monitored and enforced,” he wrote.
Platania said he thought he had made the problem clear to city officials in 2019 after prosecuting an employee for embezzlement.
“I recall stating that the enforcement and oversight of the use of city-issued credit cards seemed quite lax,” he wrote. “I, perhaps naively, thought that the issue would be addressed immediately and took no further action.”
Platania declined to comment further on the letter, saying, “the letter was intended to speak for itself.”
In the letter, Platania said that later conversations in 2019 led former City Attorney John Blair to draft a new policy but that it never received council approval.
According to his letter, instances of potential credit card misuse were brought to his attention in late 2020. He and Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson discussed the issue and decided Robertson would author an internal legal memorandum explaining standards for the cards “as a conversation starter.”
The memo was made public and the policy, as well as credit card use, turned into a bone of contention amongst councilors.
Last week, conversations between councilors at a council meeting became testy when the idea of a new policy was being presented. Before that, Mayor Nikuyah Walker said on Facebook that she was being investigated for using her city-issued credit card to pay for gift cards to compensate people who spoke at council meetings and to donate to a council presenter’s nonprofit.
Walker often provides speakers and citizens working with the city with a gift card for groceries. Walker said she had never been told that the expenditures were improper and they had not been questioned.
Records obtained by The Daily Progress show that city staff members have known for at least two years about the gift card purchases without objection.
Walker could not be reached for comment about Platania’s letter.
Councilor Michael Payne said the problem is the policy, not any particular person.
“There has not been an attempt to prosecute anyone, nor should there be,” he said. “I think the next thing is getting a clear credit card policy that is structured and easily understood. If we don’t have that structure, there’s going to be uncertainty.”
Councilor Lloyd Snook, an attorney, said he was unaware that the credit card policy had a long history.
“I did not realize that there had been so much discussion about the credit card policy not being enforceable,” Snook said. “The draft by [Blair] was not adopted by the previous council and the policy came up again at a retreat at the end of January.”
Snook said he has drafted a proposal that would guide the writing of a new credit card policy and expenditures of public money by city employees, including councilors. The proposal seeks to limit how much councilors could spend without the council’s approval.
“It’s one thing to say that councilors can make small purchases providing they have an account from which to spend it,” he said. “It’s been clear that we have a real hole there and don’t have a policy that could be enforced.”
In his letter, Platania said the city should focus on writing clear guidelines and providing supervision so all employees know which expenditures are legitimate.
“I am the city’s elected prosecutor, not its compliance manager,” he wrote. “Unless and until this is formally dealt with by city leadership, we will continue to read editorials … calling for the city to ‘solve its credit card problems.’”