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Parkersburg mayor’s stay at pricey hotel at issue

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — A receipt for an Indianapolis hotel room apparently referenced in a recorded conversation between the mayor and finance director shows a base charge of $319 for the accommodation and $116.54 in room service charges that were later repaid.

The document was one of many obtained by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel last week through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The alleged affair between Mayor Bob Newell and city Finance Director Ashley Flowers and electronic records that purportedly document it are the subjects of a West Virginia State Police investigation and a state Ethics Commission complaint. The complaint, filed by Wood County Republican Party Chairman Rob Cornelius, claims Newell and Flowers misused city time, money and resources.

The recording discussing the hotel charge was posted separately online in February with no reference to when it was made or how it was obtained. It includes a conversation between a man and woman, apparently Newell and Flowers, about a trip and a room service expense they say was incorrectly charged to the city’s card. A third person can also be heard on the recording, speaking in whispers.

Asked about the recording in February, Newell said he had gone on a legitimate trip to see a baseball stadium in Joliet, Ill., related to the city’s efforts to have a multipurpose stadium built here for a Frontier League team. He said there was an erroneous charge made to a city card.

Councilwoman Kim Coram, chairwoman of the Finance Committee, said she’s more worried about the base cost of the room than she is about a room service charge legitimately made in error and repaid.

“It’s exorbitantly expensive for a hotel room,” she said.

Coram, a former U.S. Bureau of Public Debt employee, said she’s worked in finance long enough to know one can’t assume there isn’t a justifiable reason for the expense – but she’s unsure what it would be.

Councilwoman Sharon Lynch, last year’s finance chairwoman, said the charge “does appear to be quite a bit.” However, she said she would need to know the going rate for hotels in Indianapolis before she could decide if it was “extravagant.”

As with other aspects of the allegations surrounding the mayor and finance director, Lynch said she wants to wait for the investigation to finish.

“I don’t like to make decisions based on gossip, innuendo,” she said.

Contacted for this story, Newell referred to previous comments where he’s said he’s limited in what he can say given the ongoing investigation and complaint process, but that no laws were broken.

Parkersburg Personnel Director Pam Salvage said there is no guideline for prices in the city’s policy on travel. The city’s Personnel Policy and Procedures Manual says employees can be reimbursed for “reasonable and necessary lodging expenses.”

“Employees should be frugal in the use of funds and may be required to justify all expenditures,” it says.

Salvage said the head of the department that incurs the expenses is generally the one who determines what constitutes reasonable and necessary.

“Once it’s budgeted, it’s up to the department head to spend the money as they see fit for whatever is required,” she said.

City Attorney Joe Santer said he could not speak to this specific instance, but factors that go into determining what is “reasonable and necessary” could include the going rate of lodging in the area, whether there was a reason a specific accommodation needed to be chosen over another and which hotels had vacancies.

The travel budget for the mayor’s department in the current budget year is $4,000, of which $1,461 had been spent as of Dec. 31, according to the proposed 2015-16 budget document.

The bill from the Omni Severin Hotel in Indianapolis, according to the receipt dated Oct. 22, was $521.77. That includes the $319 room charge, an optional $32 valet parking charge, two room service orders of $82.47 and $34.07, a 10 percent occupancy tax of $31.90 and a 7 percent sales tax of $22.33.

The Omni Severin’s website lists the standard rate for a room as $299, although different packages, discounts and dates cause the price to vary significantly higher or lower.

A search of other hotel/motel websites found prices of $37.99 a night at the Motel 6 Indianapolis East, $99.95 at the Holiday Inn Express Indianapolis Northwest, $119 at the Fairfield Inn Indianapolis South, $154 at the Residence Inn Indianapolis Northwest and $199 at the Indianapolis Marriott North for a single room tonight.

Attached with the hotel receipt is a fax cover sheet, dated Nov. 5 and signed by Flowers, asking for a refund for the taxes because the city is exempt. It also asks for the room service charges to be refunded to the card and charged to a second card that was given at the time.

Another attached document shows a receipt, dated Jan. 20, for Newell paying $116.55 in cash for “reimbursement for room charge – room service charged in error.”

Flowers said at that time she had planned to go on the trip to Joliet but did not. She received a per diem for travel in the amount of $106.50, according to documents provided by the city, and repaid that amount with a personal check on Jan. 20.

Flowers said in February that she paid the per diem back “after I was not able to go to the baseball stadium.”

On the tape, Flowers tells Newell she took the per diem “because I went on a work trip and you made me drive separately.”

Coram said she’s concerned there aren’t appropriate checks and balances for travel spending by the mayor.

“Once we approve his travel budget, he’s free to spend it as he sees fit,” she said. “I’ve never seen a situation where an administrator can approve his own travel.”

As finance chairwoman, Coram has asked the committee to review the city charter and code as it pertains to finances with the goal of preparing a guide for new council members to understand their responsibilities.

They’ve discovered some requirements Coram said aren’t being followed, such as the charter stating that all funds are required to be included in the budget.

That’s something former city finance director and current contracted accountant Doug Life has said he’s working to resolve, noting the ones not included were either empty or funds over which the city has no control, like employee medical savings accounts.

Coram said she does not think anything is being omitted maliciously but she wants to make sure the city’s laws are being followed.

“We are working very hard to make sure integrity checks are in place in our process,” she said. “We are not oblivious or ignoring the situation (regarding management of city finances) in any way.”

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