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Mayor says her credit card use is under investigation

awrabel@dailyprogress.com — (434) 978-7261

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said on Facebook Live last weekend that she is under investigation by the city after she used her city-issued credit card to pay for gift cards to compensate people who spoke at City Council meetings.

In the Facebook Live video and in subsequent posts, Walker said the city has for two months been investigating whether she misused funds by purchasing the gift cards and by making a donation to a City Council meeting presenter’s nonprofit.

In the Facebook video, Walker said she’s been purchasing gift cards for community members since 2018. City Councilors are issued credit cards for travel expenses and meals that meet a public purpose.

“Speakers come and speak typically about how to infuse equity in the conversation, and I pay them,” she said. “Community members come up with solutions that people who are making [$60,000 to] $200,000 can’t come up with, and I give them $25 gift cards for every hour that they spend and devote to helping us heal this community.”

The Daily Progress has previously reported on City Council and city staff members’ use of city-issued credit cards — including Walker’s gift card purchases — and Walker said on Facebook that no one told her those purchases were not allowed. Records obtained by the Progress show that city staff members have known about her purchasing gift cards for at least two years.

In a different post, Walker estimated that she had spent less than $1,000 on gift cards in the last three years.

Walker also posted a Feb. 3 memo from Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson that says Robertson recently received two referrals reporting possible unauthorized public expenditures. In one instance, city staff noticed that a recent speaker at an October City Council meeting received a donation to her nonprofit in connection with her presentation, according to the memo.

“There is no contract engaging the individual as a speaker for a fee; even if there had been, City Council has not, by ordinance or resolution, authorized any individual councilor(s) to purchase goods or services,” Robertson said in the memo.

Robertson also said that she was contacted and asked for a legal opinion about whether it was lawful for a city councilor to “purchase and offer gift cards, paid for from City Council funds, and distribute the cards to individuals who participated in group meetings convened by an individual councilor,” or “to direct staff to compensate an individual (a local attorney) who attended and participated in meetings of that group, but who does not want a gift card.”

“Staff cannot pay the local attorney unless the payment is authorized or ratified by vote of City Council taken at a public meeting,” she said in the memo. “I am open to reviewing additional information, but at this time I do not see a path for approval or ratification of any agreement to pay the attorney as a lawful expenditure under City Code §2-213 or other ordinance/statute.”

Robertson based her conclusion that Walker’s gift card purchases were not allowed on the fact that “there is no state enabling legislation authorizing appropriations, gifts (including gift cards), or donations to be made to any individual or entity by an individual city councilor, payable from city funds,” according to the memo.

Both the donation to the speaker’s nonprofit and the gift card were marked as “potential audit issue for City; potential civil or criminal liability for individual councilor” in the memo.

City Spokesman Brian Wheeler said the city was not answering questions about the credit cards, citing a “personnel and legal issue.”

When reached by phone Friday, Walker declined to answer questions. She said, however, she would answer questions that had been sent via email on her next Facebook Live.

In a Facebook comment, Walker also shared what she said was a portion of a December memo from Robertson, where Robertson said she reported the situation to Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania.

“Mr. Platania advised me — following various circumstances that came to light over two years ago — he recalls having clearly stated to the entire lead team that he would neither refer for investigation nor prosecute any matters relating to public officials’ use of city credit cards unless and until the city’s credit card usage policy has been updated and includes a statement informing everyone that failure to comply with the policy may subject them to criminal prosecution,” she wrote in the memo.

When reached by phone last week, Platania said he would neither confirm nor deny whether was any investigation in line with his office’s standing policy.

Former City Manager Tarron Richardson proposed changes to the current policy — such as different limits for employees at different levels — in 2019, but the change was never approved.

A draft of Richardson’s policy showed an added statement under the “Failure to Comply with Policies and Procedures” section that if the city manager and the city attorney “determine that a possible criminal act such as embezzlement has occurred, they will immediately report the conduct to the Chief of Police and the Commonwealth’s Attorney for possible criminal prosecution.”

According to previous reporting and information received in previous Freedom of Information Act requests, Walker has been purchasing gift cards for community members since at least early 2019.

In late January of that year, Walker had purchased five $25 Kroger gift cards for members of the Second Chance City planning group and for the Planning Commission.

In a March 2019 email from a city staff member in accounts payable to Council Clerk Kyna Thomas, the staff member reminded Thomas to submit “proof of receipt” forms regarding the Kroger gift cards.

“Please remember to send the proof of receipt form completed by each recipient to the Accounts Payable Department so we can attach it to the 02/27/19 credit card statement,” the email said.

In a reply from Walker, she said she turned in a form for the only gift card that had been given out so far, and that she would add the form and date of the original transaction once she met with the other recipients.

One proof of receipt was included in the information provided by the city at the time, and recipients could either check that they received the gift card for “I surveyed community members for the planning commission survey” or “I organized community member for Home to Hope meetings.”

In late 2018, Wheeler outlined the five-stage review process for credit card expenditures to The Daily Progress, in which Finance Director Chris Cullinan ultimately signs off on the expenditure and the city’s auditor reviews a sample of credit card transactions as part of the annual audit.

According to additional city credit card statements provided by the city in previous records requests, Walker also purchased $300 worth of gift cards at Kroger in October 2019 that were “awarded to panelists.” In April, she spent $100 at Food Lion for “gift cards for COVID-19 testing coordinators.”

In last week’s Facebook Live video and additional Facebook posts, Walker said she had emailed Cullinan in December about an issue she was having trying to buy more gift cards.

“He never mentioned potential legal issues with these transactions,” she said.

In another Facebook post, Walker said “they have been investigating me for two months and no one said anything to me,” and that she didn’t know it was illegal for her to pay a nonprofit, as “we pay nonprofits all the time.”

“Instead of expressing their concerns to me, the acting city attorney went to the prosecutor,” Walker said in the post. “The most problematic part of this ordeal is that staff has stated several times that they were attempting to be helpful and all of my colleagues have stated that they believed that staff was attempting to be helpful. White people, please don’t try to help me in the future. Please don’t! And what is the solution to ensure that when people help us solve issues in the community that we’re able to give them stipends for their time.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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