MCPS Board of Education: Member credit card expenses under question

ROCKVILLE, Md. (WJLA) - The Montgomery County Board of Education is attracting added scrutiny for expenditures members have made with their school district-issued credit cards.

On Tuesday, BOE President Phil Kauffman announced the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor had launched a criminal investigation into the eight-member board. The state office, which sniffs-out government corruption and election fraud, is currently reviewing the board's spending and reimbursement practices dating back to Jan. 2010.

Through a public information request, ABC7 obtained the documents MCPS provided to the Office of the State Prosecutor -- nearly 1500 pages of credit card statements, mileage logs, and receipts.

Our review discovered MCPS has reimbursed board members for a wide variety of costs -- including $300 meals, Washington, D.C. hotel stays, and at-home internet.

Board President Phil Kauffman

Halfway through his second term on the board, Phil Kauffman demonstrated great discipline when it came to meal expenditures. Not once did he charge a local meal to taxpayers.

However, records show Kauffman routinely parks in hourly garages when flying out of local airports for school board conferences. Four receipts -- three from BWI and one from Reagan National Airport -- total $360. Had the Olney resident parked in the economy/long-term lots, he would have saved taxpayers $190 in fees.

Records also show MCPS reimbursed Kauffman $123 for two large magnetic signs, which read "Philip Kauffman - Board of Education." Although the purchase came less one year before his 2012 re-election, a school spokesman said the charge was justified since Kauffman used the signs during a summertime parade.

Rebecca Smondrowski

Elected to the board in Nov. 2012, Rebecca Smondrowski is the board's newest member. Records reveal between Jan. 2013 and March 2014, the Gaithersburg resident expensed 50 meals and refreshments, to the tune of $1,153.50.

Her mealtime guests included fellow school board members Chris Barclay, Michael Durso, Phil Kauffman and Pat O'Neill. Smondrowski also broke bread with Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, Rockville Mayor Bridget Newton, SEIU Local 500 Executive Director Dave Rodich, and a few dozen unnamed constituents. Documents show taxpayers footed every bill, including a 40% tip during a dinner at Bonefish Grill in Gaithersburg.

In February, Smondrowski and fellow board member Chris Barclay attended a conference at the Washington Hilton Hotel. Despite both residing in Montgomery County, Smondrowski and Barclay booked individual rooms. With valet parking and room service included, their two-night stays cost taxpayers more than $1,600 combined.

"I stayed at the conference hotel in Washington, DC because I needed to be there early and it would take up to 1 1/2 hours to get there from my house during rush hour. Also, I spent the evening hours meeting and networking with board members from around the country. It was a great learning experience for me and will ultimately help me be a better and more informed board member here in Montgomery County," Smondrowski said in a written statement.

Complimentary At-Home Internet

Expense reports provided to ABC7 show MCPS pays for three members' residential internet service: Dr. Judith Docca, Phil Kauffman and Rebecca Smondrowski. Together, the trio's online charges total $3,394.32 since Jan 2010. When asked if they routinely use their residential internet for personal browsing, none of the three board members issued a direct answer.

"The Board of Education handbook makes it clear that members are entitled to reimbursement for certain expenses, including internet connections, subscriptions to professional journals, and the cost of events they are attending as a representative of the Board. Reimbursement for these types of expenditures is entirely consistent with the best practices of other counties in Maryland and jurisdictions in other states," Kauffman said in a written statement released to ABC7 Thursday.

Looking Ahead

MCPS has assembled a special committee tasked with refining its school board reimbursement policies and practices. A handful of changes have already been recommended, and are expected to be brought to the full board in July. They include:

*Allowing Board of Education members to use district-issued credit cards only for the purpose of authorized out-of-county travel, such as conferences and workshops. Eligible expenses incurred while conducting Board business locally would be paid by the Board member and then reimbursed, as long as proper documentation is provided; *Requiring pre-approval for costs associated with Board members’ attendance at any out-of-county conferences, workshops, and meetings; *Requiring pre-approval for tickets to attend local events; *Allowing county-funded hotel stays only for pre-approved events that are more than 50 miles from the Carver Educational Services Center at 850 Hungerford Drive in Rockville; *No longer allowing Board members to pay for the meals of other people, such as elected leaders, staff, or constituents; *Limiting the circumstances in which Board members can seek reimbursements for their own meals, and setting monetary caps on those meals that are aligned with State of Maryland limits; *Requiring pre-approval for out-of-county mileage reimbursement; *Fully enforcing and enhancing existing requirements that detailed receipts and information be provided regarding expenses before reimbursement is made; *Requiring quarterly reports on Board member expenditures and an annual review by an external auditor; and *Requiring annual training for Board members on expenditure guidelines.

"I want to stress that my colleagues and I are dedicated public servants who work around the clock for our community. While we understand that some questions have been raised by the public, my colleagues and I are committed to acting in the best interests of our students. We receive part-time salaries and maintain home offices with modest expenses as we serve our community," Kauffman concluded.

ABC7's review of BOE finances found members Shirley Brandman, Michael Durso, and Patricia O'Neill showed significantly fewer expenses when compared with their colleagues.