Leaders of the Louisville Metro Council are voicing concern about purchases made from a discretionary fund by Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Jerry Abramson during his tenure as mayor.
Council members have suggested a number of possible actions regarding the mayoral fund, from tighter restrictions on the current administration, calling Abramson to testify before the Government Accountability and Ethics committee and contacting state Auditor Crit Luallen to examine the account.
Each year council members approved a $41,000 account that the mayor could access, but city records show many expenditures made by the Abramson administration lacked any invoices or receipts.
Several procurements went to innocuous charitable organizations, however, other purchases include: $3,400 at an upscale steakhouse in Washington, D.C. for “Louisville business leaders”; $7,500 to Insight Media for “census outreach”; and another $2,378 to the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., developer of Fourth Street Live, for a football game celebration.
The funds were spent without any internal review or approval from lawmakers, and no receipts were turned in for several purchases, though that is not required. Council President Jim King, D-10, says the city auditor needs to examine the fund and report back to the council.
“The council is responsible for appropriating taxpayer dollars and if we give a fund to the executive branch to spend we do expect it to be spent wisely and to be documented,” he says. “I certainly think the council would have appreciated a report from internal audit to the extent documentation was not there.”
On Friday, the Kentucky Democratic Party insisted they were receiving documents that would clarify purchases made by Abramson, who is running with Governor Steve Beshaer this fall. The party previously defended the bulk of the purchases as helping economic development and community improvement and suggested the story would need to be corrected.
“My problem with your story was one of tone as well as lack of research,” KDP spokesman Matt Erwin wrote in an e-mail, adding the party was getting documents to “clean up” the story. “My guess is you did not receive documents from archives…working on research to clear this up.”
Metro Government officials confirmed Tuesday that WFPL’s initial open records request contained all the pertinent records of purchases since January 2007, and prompted a search of the city’s archives, which found no additional information. Asked what the party had gathered from its request to show documentation of purchases, Erwin declined to comment for this story.
Over $180,000 was spent with checks written to individuals for art exhibits and green initiative lectures, including local newspaper The Louisville Defender‘s business luncheon.
The finance department did provide letters of intent signed by either Abramson or a proxy that mention the third party, the amount for each check and the public purpose of the funds. But a city audit report found the public purpose given by the Abramson administration was insufficiently documented.
Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, who chairs the government accountability committee, says she wasn’t aware of the lack of documentation and is considering a number of options for reforms going forward, including a request that state Auditor Crit Luallen’s office examine of the fund.
“I’m disappointed that the Metro Council—including myself—hasn’t over the course of the last few years asked for more detail about the line item spending,” she says. “On some level I have trusted that the same process we were engaged in and external agencies were engaged in was the same process the mayor was using. What I’m finding out now is it appears that isn’t the case.”
Since taking office, Mayor Greg Fischer has used $6,500 from the contingency fund, with $4,000 going towards a quick-recall tournament for Jefferson County Public Schools students and $2,500 to pay for his attendance at an innovation forum hosted in Chicago.
The Fischer administration defends the account as necessary to use in the case of unforeseen expenditures that can’t be anticipated, but the mayor found the lack of documentation unacceptable and has sought to have receipts kept for future purchases.
Many have said they are pleased to see the current administration take strides to achieve better oversight of the contingency fund and make improvements, however, council Republicans are pushing for Abramson to explain the expenditures to the council in person.
“There’s no clarification on public purpose,” says Councilman Ken Fleming, R-7, who also sits on the accountability committee. “I think it would be an appropriate move for the mayor to come forth and try to explain that. Obviously he’s out office, but I think this has a direct correlation. If he’s going to run for the second position in Kentucky he needs to come forth and explain the public purpose and the benefit of these expenditures. ”
Receiving criticism for the use of their own discretionary funds for the past several weeks has made the council more critical of city spending and council leaders say the mayoral fund should receive the same level of scrutiny.
Lawmakers will review purchases made by the mayor’s office over the past four years, says King, but he wouldn’t go as far as calling on Abramson to explain the purchases before the committee. However, the council president believes the former mayor should clarify the procurements pubilcly.
“I would think that former Mayor Abramson would want to explain the purchases if they’re being questioned,” says King. “I’m sure that he would feel he has justification for their public purpose and I would think he would welcome the opportunity to explain those.”