Louisiana Politics & Government – St. John housing official used agency credit card to buy personal stuff

By Victoria St. Martin, The Times-Picayune
February 28, 2010

The director of the St. John the Baptist Housing Authority used an agency credit card to make more than $2,000 in personal purchases last year, an analysis of the charge account statements has found.

Although the director, Lawand Johnson, said she reimbursed the authority for all personal expenses charged to the agency card, agency officials said they did not receive documents supporting her contention.

The personal charges made on the card included a trip to a Baton Rouge hair salon, items from a sporting goods store in Baton Rouge and payments for residential utilities, such as a telephone and electric bills.

The authority has called for an internal investigation into Johnson’s use of the card.

Johnson incurred the charges on a Capital One Business Platinum Mastercard that was opened in January 2009 and closed in December, shortly after a member of the authority’s board questioned her use of the card. The Times-Picayune analyzed the credit card statements.

In an interview, Johnson said she mistakenly thought she was allowed to make personal purchases on the card as long as she paid the portion of the bill that involved those purchases.

Johnson said that each month she would pay what she deemed her personal portion of the bill and then request a check from the Housing Authority for the remaining business-related expenses charged to the card.

Johnson has been at the helm of the housing authority since October 2008; she was the assistant housing director before being promoted. As director, she is paid $80,000 a year and oversees an $1.8 million budget and the agency’s four housing complexes in LaPlace, Reserve, Garyville and Edgard, as well Section 8 housing around the parish.

“I thought it was my card,” Johnson said. “That was my whole reason for using it. Once I realized it was improper to do so, I stopped.”

Board member Donald Brown said Johnson did not produce the charge card statements when he requested them several months ago and that the bills were paid by the housing agency without proper documentation or oversight.

Johnson said Friday she turned in itemized receipts with the appropriate charge card statements to the agency’s accounting office. She said she could not produce those records on Friday.

“No one was seeing the entire bill, only what was due,” Brown has said.

In calling for an internal investigation into the credit card use, Brown said  Johnson would not allow anyone to see the charge card statements which originally were mailed to the housing authority, but later were sent to Johnson’s house in Baton Rouge.

Randal Gaines, the Housing Board’s attorney, is investigating the matter and said he would forward his findings to the board and the federal Housing and Urban Development’s office.

Gaines has said that he found at least one instance in which public funds were used to pay for a personal expense, but would not give details.

This is not an unfamiliar predicament for the St. John public housing board.

A former Housing Authority executive director was dismissed from his post in 2000 after credit card records showed he had bought shoes and other personal items with an agency credit card.

In 2004, another executive director was fired after allegations that she misspent money earmarked for an insurance policy.

Johnson acknowledged that more than half of the purchases that she made with the credit card were for personal expenses. Those expenses included her personal telephone and utility bills, sporting equipment for her son, charges to an automotive dealership and a $150 bill at a Baton Rouge beauty salon.

Some members of the authority’s board of commissioners said Johnson’s actions were improper and questioned whether she abused the credit card.

Brown said the agency’s policies are clear about the terms of using agency credit cards.

“At no time will any authority credit card purchase be for items of services for personal use,” the agency’s policy indicates.

The company that issued the card, Capital One, also does not allow personal, family or household purchases to be made on the business card, according to the card’s terms and conditions.

In all, Johnson made $3,652.50 in purchases with the card last year. Not included in the total is $171 worth of over-limit and late fees on the card, which had a $1,000 credit limit.

When presented with The Times-Picayune’s analysis, Johnson acknowledged that $2,086.08 of those purchases were for personal expenses. She said  an additional $1,566.42 in purchases were legitimate work-related expenses.

Gaines has said that his investigation would require Johnson to address each purchase with “specificity.” However he said he had not received receipts showing the itemized list of the purchases.

Johnson, who said she used her own her own Social Security information to obtain the card, has maintained that she is the primary cardholder, not the agency. Gaines said he is waiting for clarification on who is the primary cardholder.

Meanwhile, Gaines said his preliminary findings were that the card was issued to the agency because the authority’s name appears on the card.

Patricia Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said the agency’s New Orleans office is aware of the issue. And even though each agency’s board of commissioners sets its own policies, Campbell said HUD’s federal policy allows for credit cards to be used only for official business.

Gaines said the local board will decide what type of action to take at the end of his investigation. The action could range from a leave without pay to termination from the agency, he said.

Wednesday afternoon, during a regularly scheduled meeting of the authority, board members said they discussed the issue in executive session, which is closed to the public, but declined to comment after the session.

Johnson attended the public portion of the meeting, but was not in the executive session.

“Right now, it is still under investigation,” Commission Chairman Allen Smith said of the credit card matter. “There hasn’t been any determination on anything.”

Johnson, meanwhile, said she never intended to run afoul of the agency’s policies.

“It was never my intention to defraud this agency,” she said. “I just want to put this behind me. I’m ready to accept whatever disciplinary action they decide to hand to me.

“I’m ready to accept it at this point, so I can move on.”

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