DOVER — It remains a mystery who Delaware State Treasurer Chip Flowers met in a 2012 trip to Alaska.
The meeting in question came on the heels of a National Association of State Treasurers Conference.
At issue is Treasurer Flowers’ expenses on the trip.
The treasurer said he met with bankers and lawyers regarding the state’s $2 billion portfolio, which justified his travel expenses and extra days associated with First State business.
Mr. Flowers will not divulge the names of the bankers or lawyers, standing by his office’s policy for meetings with such institutions to be kept confidential.
“As a matter of policy, the Treasury rarely discusses meetings and matters relating to state portfolio,” Mr. Flowers said Friday via email.
“Additionally, if a financial institution requests a confidential meeting, we honor that request to ensure that the Treasury obtains information that may be critical to the management of the portfolio …”
State auditor Tom Wagner, who has begun a preliminary review of Treasury’s travel documents released to the public after a Wednesday press conference, said he “can’t fathom” why participants’ identities would be made secret when short-term investments and cash for the state are involved.
Mr. Wagner pointed to the relatively simply nature of Treasury’s investments, and the state strategies being made public through policies set by the Delaware Cash Management Policy Board as making Treasury discussions non-sensitive to identifications of parties involved.
Legislators — Republicans and Democrats — said last week that media reports had fueled public concerns on just what state business was handled in Alaska.
“The crux of the whole issue is: Did he take extra time at taxpayers expense? And was it beyond normal and on the lavish side?” Mr. Wagner said.
“Obviously people don’t want government officials living large on the taxpayers’ dime.”
The auditor’s office, Mr. Wagner said, is reviewing documents.
The treasurer said such confidential meetings are “extremely rare” and most state business during his term have been conducted with White House, Treasury and other government officials.
Regardless, Mr. Flowers returned $460.80 for lodging and dining expenses accrued during the Alaska trip, along with $415.25 for an additional day’s stay related to a National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers meeting in Seattle in 2012.
“Since I made a promise of confidentiality during our meetings in Alaska to certain financial institutions and law firms, I opted to return the money to the state to ensure that I could honor the commitment,” he said.
“I believe that when you give your word, you should honor it.”
After Wednesday’s document release, State Division of Accounting Director Kristopher Knight said it was reviewing the paperwork “and hopefully the division will resolve what credit card purchases have been made and reimbursed in the Treasurer’s Office and why.”
On Friday, Mr. Flowers said the Division of Accounting had possessed the information for months.
More numbers divulged
Also Wednesday, Mr. Flowers said he would pay back $151.34 for lodging and food purchases that exceeded per diem limits during his past three years in office.
Mr. Flowers said more than $80,000 in state man hours and expenses had been spent addressing requests for more information regarding his travel costs and those of ex-deputy Treasurer Erika Benner.
Also posted Wednesday were 178 pages of documents related to Ms. Benner’s travel and expenses from 2011-13. The paperwork is online at www.treasury.delaware.gov.
Ms. Benner resigned last summer after scrutiny over personal charges placed on state-issued cards, including tickets and transportation to a New England Patriots game.
After ample time spent “copying receipts for pancakes” and honoring Freedom of Information Act requests he said were arriving almost daily at times, the treasurer said his staff’s limited resources had been tapped for weeks.
Day-to-day Treasury operations were maintained, the treasurer said.
Time spent on the press conference forced the Treasury staff to delay an appearance Thursday before the Office of Management and Budget regarding Fiscal Year 2015 budget planning.
The public hearing was moved to Tuesday, the treasurer said.
After media reports on the controversial Alaska stay, the Treasury announced policy changes that will make meetings with all financial institutions during travel known to the public if state funds are used.
“This problem arose, because the Treasury under my administration has been more active than prior administrations, so I want to make sure that we are as transparent as possible and this should address the issue,” Mr. Flowers said.
Ms. Benner remains on the state payroll and the former deputy treasurer is under investigation by the Office of Management and Budget after her request to return to a state merit system position, officials said.
“The state’s merit laws protect the rights of employees who remain on the payroll with due process and prohibit depriving an employee of pay without reasonable explanation and justification,” state budget office spokeswoman Jessica Eisenbrey said.
The budget office said Ms. Benner is being paid in her original budget position — $97,869 annually — due to processing through the central payroll system which must charge her salary to a specific budgeted position in a state agency in order to generate a paycheck, according to Ms. Eisenbrey.
Minus a deputy treasurer since last summer, Mr. Flowers said his office has redistributed duties and continued to work efficiently while protecting and growing the state’s portfolio.
While candidates have been interviewed for the vacant post, the treasurer said an evaluation of duties might change the role into a more regulations and rules-oriented chief of staff instead.
Missing receipt affidavits
Among 153 pages of documents related to Mr. Flowers’ travels in office were at least 19 Missing Receipt Affidavits filed with the State of Delaware for expenses in which Mr. Flowers could not locate the original receipt.
The treasurer said the expenses were legitimate and backed up by state credit card expense reports issued by the companies.
The expenses totaled more than $2,800, ranging from rental car feels, Shell Oil and Sunoco gas purchases, office supplies, Amtrak train tickets, and parking garages, among others.
Not keeping the original receipts was a mistake that Mr. Flowers acknowledged, and he attributed the discarded receipts to following the general policies of corporate business during his transition to public office in 2011.
Most times in the affidavits, Mr. Flowers checked the box for “I had the receipt but am unable to locate it.”
The cardholder’s signature was redacted in documents available online, along with the supervisory signature and name.
None of the discarded receipts had sensitive information regarding state account numbers, Mr. Flowers said. The Division of Account concurred with that notion.
“I am not aware of any merchant organizations that still include full card numbers on receipts,” Mr. Knight said. “Common practice is to mask the numbers in order to ensure that cardholder information is secure.”
Mr. Flowers said the state’s requirements for original copies of receipts was arcane and said he would push for agencies to phase out of a system that has left the Treasury with “boxes and boxes” of old credit card statements that are all backed up.
According to Mr. Knight, “Missing Receipt Affidavits may be submitted in lieu of lost or stolen receipts. The affidavit is typically submitted to agency fiscal staff by the employee, as the agency is primarily responsible for the review and approval of all organizational expenditures.
“In practice, many agencies require their employees to reach out to merchants in order to obtain a copy of a missing receipt. Affidavits are often accepted and approved on a case-by-case situation.”
Mr. Knight said that habitual offenders may struggle to receive supervisory and fiscal staff approval from their agency and “The affidavit was not created for employees to use as an alternative to providing itemized receipts.”
Ultimately, managing missing affidavit receipts is up to each agency and no reporting to the Division of Accounting is required, Mr. Knight said.
A stern face
Entering a Wednesday morning press conference to announce the coming release of travel-related documents, Mr. Flowers wore a stern face that departed from his generally outgoing, affable nature that’s been seen by the public since taking office in January 2011.
A bevy of cameras and out-of-area journalists joined the regular Delaware media participants, and nearly 20 journalists and a representative from the Delaware Office of Management and Budget crowed into a conference room next to the treasury office on Silver Lake Boulevard in Dover.
“It was amazing looking out at a bank of cameras and it kind of felt like a White House press conference,” Mr. Flowers said. “I was slightly nervous; I wondered how does something so small get so big? And how do I get it back to reality?
“I felt like I had truth on my side, but the matter was how do I get this all back to reality.”
Mr. Flowers read a prepared statement, denying any taxpayer money was spent on personal expenses and noted his repayments for the Alaska and Washington trips.
At one point, he veered from prepared remarks and referenced paying for a third flapjack since state expense policies covered only two.
A quick question and answer session followed, which Mr. Flowers cut off abruptly after just a few media questions.
The travel documents had not been made public yet, leaving little for the public and media to analyze other than what was in Mr. Flowers’ address.
Looking back two days later, Mr. Flowers said he might have considered an earlier document release and more immediate availability to answer questions on what legislators have said is a public issue.
Afterward, Sen. Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said “I guess that is transparency as he defines it.”
Even with a small dollar amount relative to management of a $2 billion portfolio, Mr. Flowers said the public’s impression of how state officials conduct their business is important.
“It was very important for our office to not delay and put all the information out there for the public to see,” he said. “I think the story is starting to speak for itself … despite what the media made it into through false implications.”
Staff writer Craig Anderson
can be reached at 741-8296
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