Auditor reveals cards' expense

Taxpayer money used for holiday greetings

Memo sent to County Council

$3,000 spent by Owens, Johnson, Simonds in '02

Anne Arundel

December 03, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

In the view of Anne Arundel County's auditor, three county officials may have taken the spirit of giving too far, using taxpayer money to send holiday greeting cards.

County Executive Janet S. Owens, Sheriff George F. Johnson IV and Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds spent more than $3,000 on cards and postage last year, according to a memorandum from County Auditor Teresa Sutherland.

The memo, distributed Monday to members of the County Council and obtained by The Sun, begins: "I am writing to advise you of spending by the Sheriff's Office, the Fire Department and the County Executive's Office that is, in my opinion, an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds."

It does not recommend a specific fix, nor does it note a specific policy that was violated.

Owens spent the most, $2,518. She sent her cards to businesses, civic associations, county employees and others, her spokeswoman said. They were signed by her, her husband and two sons. They had her home return address.

After auditors inquired about the price, she reimbursed the county with money from her campaign account. But that raises legal questions.

State law prohibits government employees from doing campaign work on government time.

According to the memo, then-chief of staff Fred Schram ordered the cards through an Owens' spokeswoman. They were made in the county print shop.

"In the future, further consideration will be given to utilizing any county staff for holiday mailings," Owens' spokeswoman Jody Couser said yesterday.

State law also requires that any campaign mailings contain a printed line detailing who paid for them and who authorized the expenditure. There was no such line on her cards.

The state prosecutor's office handles campaign law cases. Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Mike McDonough said his office would take into consideration that Owens, a Democrat, had reimbursed the county and that it was not a large expense.

"If somebody complained here, we'd look at it and make a decision," he said. "I tend to doubt we'd be real [eager] to prosecute."

Couser said the campaign has always paid for Owens' cards, but it did not do so last year because of an oversight. She also said it was oversight that the cards did not contain a line stating who paid for them.

She said Owens will not be sending cards this year.

Johnson, a Democrat, said he always has sent cards. He spent $484 on cards last year, and $296 on cards this year. Last year, postage cost $85.

"It's a time when people come together," he said. "Law enforcement relies on connecting with people."

He said he will reimburse the county if the County Council requests that.

The auditor's memo also disclosed that Johnson spent $224 last year on pocket knives to give to visiting law enforcement.

"It's money that is well spent in order to show our appreciation," he said.

Simonds, the fire chief, spent $118 last year on cards, and $37 on postage, the memo states.

This year, he used several leftover cards and paid for the postage himself, he said.

"It has been a normal practice to send holiday greetings to the agencies we deal with on a regular basis," he said.

Anne Arundel County Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Republican, said he thinks it would be best for the Anne Arundel officials to reimburse the county, which has a nearly $900 million operating budget.

"Now we're facing tighter budgetary times," he said, "it's clearly not the amount of money, but the perception."

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