Let me preface this investigative report into the Ludington 2016 "Shop with a Cop" (SWAC) program by declaring that this author has the utmost respect for the goals of SWAC and for the majority of ladies and gentlemen in the law enforcement realm who take the extra time each year to make a young child's life better, while at the same time improving or repairing the community's respect and appreciation of our protectors.
The problems in the accounting of this year's SWAC program manifested themselves with several items from SWAC appearing in the General Fund ledger of the city's budget. "Shop with a Cop" is not part of Ludington government, it is effectively a program primarily funded by monetary donations of groups and private individuals, with plenty of time and energy also expended by the participating administrators and police participators.
Public accounting principles suggest that this money should not go into a general fund of a city. Nor would it be wise to even have special accounts tended to by public officials during the course of their business day. The records suggest much time and some resources were spent during the city's business hours doing work on the SWAC charity. This further suggests that many of our highest paid public officials, with extravagant fringe benefits packages, don't have enough work to do otherwise. Charity begins at home, not at city hall.
Further research into the 2016 SWAC program and its public budget component was done through a FOIA request. The city diligently responded with everything they had associated with it, including lists of the children and their general locations (with names and addresses properly redacted), a couple of E-mails, and two files that showed the appropriate receipts, releases, invoices, and budget entries (see SWAC FOIA pt 1.pdf and SWAC FOIA pt. 2.pdf for references used throughout this article, I will present snippets from those two files for clarity of points.
Records show the program took in $14,157.43 from various sources. About 30% of the money came from the pie auction, about 4% overall came from donations or pie purchases made by police officers in the county, LPD Chief Mark Barnett donating the most at $100. The other two-thirds came from private individuals or groups that supported the cause. I presume that all donations are accounted for in this article, if you know of a group or person who donated but isn't found within the two files, let me know in the comment section.
The area of concern I noticed in the SWAC program was in the expense category. The pie auction and other literature including press releases and feature stories on the event all expressed or strongly implied that the donations would go strictly to the kids for gift-shopping and in buying Christmas dinners for their family:
And this appears to be what they did, according to the latest figures in the city's budget ledger:
Further review of these expenses found some irregularities in the uses of and accounting of the gift cards of the two superstores for expenses not part of the program. The Walmart situation is the easiest to notice and will be looked at first. The Meijer situation is most troubling and directly points at somebody using the money on the gift card for something not related to SWAC or even for the city's purchases.
Walmart: What Happened to Two $250 Gift Cards?
In the SWAC Report at the top of the first file, we come to the understanding that 60 kids each received $150 Walmart gift cards to shop with.
That multiplies up to $9000, and the records show receipts for 60 $150 gift cards; however, it also shows that the city spent $9500 (Tony Kuster $9500 check request) and that two more gift cards were purchased having $250 each (Wal-Mart Receipts for 2 $250 GCs). In all the reports from the news and everywhere else, there is no accounting for when this money was spent at Walmart, nor does the city's budget ledgers have any clue for the three month period starting in November.
The report indicates that Walmart helped provide food for the SWAC event, one may think that the gift cards may have purchased that rather than Walmart providing it as a 'donation'. Yet, why would the receipt for the purchase of that food be left out of the otherwise complete records?
Officer Kuster brought those extra gift cards with money from the general fund, if he didn't use them, if they are in some drawer unused at the LPD, why did he buy them in the first place? According to the expenses of the program, this money was not spent on SWAC.
Meijers: Who spent the $912.27 on the gift card and what did they buy?
When the January 23, 2017 paying of the bills came before the council, there was a charge on the city credit card for $1272,41 for spiral hams and other food appearing in the general fund expense account. This struck me as odd, because such things should not fall in that account, even when it's for a charity like SWAC, and launched my investigation. The actual mystery grew deeper on receipt of the records.
At the bottom of the City Credit Card Receipt, it shows that this purchase took place about a week before Christmas. You will also note that I highlighted a $74.34 purchase at Pizza Hut on the receipt, in the same 'paying of the bills' it explains this purchase as a session with Lew Bender:
Bender is an expert at public administration ironically enough, who apparently taught our city leaders that it's okay to charge the taxpayers big bucks for their munchies at such sessions. Worth noting, but slightly off topic. It shows that the city record keepers hide their otherwise unethical restaurant purchases behind misleading descriptions.
If you recall the expenses list, they had an expense of $1000 for gift cards on November 15, which one would think would mean that they spent $1000 on a Meijer gift card. This doesn't seem to be the case however, as no money shows up in the paying of the bills for such a purchase. Furthermore, the treasurer's entry shows that the card was both paid for and spent while claiming it as a MEIJER GIFT CARD DONATION:
But as in the Walmart gift card scenario, there is nothing showing that this card was ever spent in the city's expense records. Feel free to look through the 'paying of the bills' in these relevant meetings (the page number it starts at is given for your convenience). After the links, my own perusal of the payments is given:
LCC 1-23-2017 p.9 : $1272.41 ham, etc. purchase at Meijer
LCC 1-9-2017 p.19 : $50 Room rent expense for SWAC auction, $0 at Meijer
LCC 12-19-2016 p. 145 : $9500 Walmart check, $0 at Meijer
LCC 12-05-2016 p.19 : $0 at Meijer
LCC 11-28-2016 p.6 : $0 at Meijer
LCC 11-14-2016 p.8 : $0 at Meijer (meeting before any expenses paid out)
Accordingly the record reflects that not only did the city never pay for the $1000 gift card(s), but also that they never spent it. You may ask, why didn't the city use the gift card to help pay for the meals where they spent over $1000? Here's where it gets very interesting.
Included in the records is the receipt from Meijer for the food they purchased which does not total $1272.41, rather the cost was $1360.14. Can you guess what knocked the price down $87.73 before you take a look at the receipt?
The purchaser used a Meijer gift card with a remaining balance of $87.73 (notice the balance was reduced to zero). When we remember that there were no purchases other than this one made at Meijer by the City itself or on behalf of the Shop with a Cop program in this three month period, there can only be one conclusion. That the $912.27 was spent at Meijer for something that wasn't related to SWAC or the city, and that the purchaser and the other official reviewers (if any) overlooked. In other words, whoever made this purchase surely was well aware that the money had been illicitly used for other things.
That person, whoever he is, stole money donated to help poor kids at Christmas. Whoever he is, he is the lowest of the low no matter what his high position is.
This was a ton of work X and once again you stand up for what is right. No one wants their charitable donations to be misused or go missing. Not good!
Talk about Small Town Politics: No wonder the Chief of Police and City Council like to SHAME Mr. Rotta, if any of this is true. Those who should be ASHAMED are those who allegedly misspent funds or who allegedly can't add well enough to say there was an error. At the least, the Chief of Police who has the position to address the alleged missing funds should man up and address the missing funds. Words go into the air and are not addressed at your City Council. If there is a discrepancy in accounting, the Chief of Police should publicly apologize to Mr. Rotta and thank him for his concern and mathematical skills. What Board of Ethics member would like to Shame those responsible for setting up the Funds for Shop With a Cop? Probably none in a small community. How unfortunate, but that's how it goes, if one points out a discrepancy in records or an ethical issue. The Whistleblower is the Target. Sorry Mr. Rotta. You should be working for the City. I would think their budget and infrastructure and pollution issues would be in better order.
As of today, there has been no attempt by the LPD or the city to justify the absence of the nearly $1500 of Shop with a Cop donations. At the last meeting on 3-20-2017, Chief Barnett did offer his annual report on police activities. Of interest is the point he made in his written report to the council where he stuffed this paragraph about the SWAC program:
One would then believe that the missing $912.27 on the Meijer gift card was spent at Meijer's for the Stuff a Blue Goose program, which they had planned (as seen in the records). But also as seen in the voluminous records, there is never any purchase of $912.27 made at anytime, nor is their any Meijer receipt showing the purchase. Absent both and any mention of the reception of the Stuff program with donations from the Shop program, I see quite a few records that should have been released by the police and the city that weren't. It's deplorable record keeping at best, an unsubstantiated claim by the chief at worst.
The Chief and City Mgr. have a lot in common when it comes to honesty and transparency. When your main character attributes include arrogance galore, along with a condescending attitude, you don't have to feel ashamed, nor guilty, or anything unethical or illegal about your actions, whether accidental or on purpose. Just call the whistle-blower a liar, or ignore him, then pretend it never happened. And if it goes further, just call him not credible, even if all the facts and evidence says otherwise.
Time for a FOIA . The Michigan State Police would have records of donations to their Blue Goose fund. Time to find out if our Chief Barnett is stuffing his pockets or the Goose.
That's not a bad idea, yet I wonder how many hundreds of dollars they would want for that information?
Probably many hundreds, with a lot of redactions too.
The mayor we currently have is a term-limited 13 year city councilor who knows whose shoes to polish and whose shoes to just spit on. That being said, she has only accepted the city manager's, city attorney's and police chief's version of reality throughout my social intercourse with the city.
Simplification is a great tactic to use, and I try to use it at times at these meetings-- but if I try to use it exclusively, our brilliant city officials have learned that they have unlimited time to obfuscate the simplicity at the end of the meetings. The local press is akin to the mayor as pertains to shoes. That's why I always leave these meetings with saliva spots on my Reeboks, and avoid looking at John Shay's Birkenstocks because of the glare, not to mention the indignity of the genuflecting councilors.