Auditing firm on EBR Clerk of Court credit card expenses: 'Obviously, we don't look at every document' _lowres

East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court Doug Welborn

On a Monday in 2013, someone from the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court’s Office charged $101.21 for buffets at the Hollywood Casino in Baton Rouge to a government credit card. The next day, $68.15 was charged to the same card at Central Buffet.

On Wednesday, it was back at the casino, where another $72.30 was racked up. And the week was closed out with a meal at Acme Oyster House for $191.49.

Only a week later, another string of expensive meals was charged to the card: $171.65 at Monjunis Italian Restaurant, $188.34 at Stroubes Seafood and Steaks, $159.75 at Christina’s Restaurant downtown, and then $177.91 at Twin Peaks, a sports bar known for its attractive, scantily clad waitresses.

This two-week period of spending on a government credit card was not unusual for the Clerk of Court’s Office, according to a review of five years of credit card statements. The statements illustrate a pattern of frequent use of credit cards for meals, travel and purchases, including $760 for top-of-the-line coolers purchased at Cabela’s in Gonzales and regular trips to home goods stores like Lowe’s. The cards were used for both expensive meals at fancy restaurants and casual stops at places such as McDonald’s, Krispy Kreme and Downtown Seafood, with food purchases averaging out to more than once a week for some years.

Clerk of Court Doug Welborn agreed to an interview with an Advocate reporter scheduled Tuesday morning, but he did not show up. His spokesman, Fred Sliman, said a friend of Welborn’s died unexpectedly Tuesday, and he said it was unclear whether Welborn would be available for another interview opportunity.

Sliman provided stacks of bundled receipts that matched up with many of the credit card expenditures that described the frequent restaurant outings as office meetings to discuss topics like “legislation at the capitol” and “warehouse problems, recommendations.” Several hundreds of dollars spent at places such as Home Depot and Lowe’s for items that included wheelbarrows, weed killers, paint brushes, paint and screws had notes that merely said “for warehouse,” a reference to a rented storage unit on Wooddale Boulevard.

Sliman said the $750 for two ice chests spent at Cabela’s serves a public purpose because they are used at a variety of events including office dinners, election events and election qualifying.

The credit card statements were initially requested by Welborn’s opponent in his race for re-election, Sarah Holliday-James. Her camp provided them to some media sources, including a blog called TheRougeCollection.net, which mentioned some of the expenditures in a post last week. The Advocate has since independently requested the records from the Clerk of Court’s office and evaluated them.

The Advocate analysis found that since 2011, Welborn’s office charged at least $93,000 to government credit cards. In that five-year period, almost $29,000 was spent on food, either at restaurants or grocery stores. About $46,000 was spent on hotel rooms, often casino hotel rooms.

Welborn, a Republican, was first elected East Baton Rouge Parish clerk of court 21 years ago. The government office has 139 full-time employees and oversees elections, issuance of marriage licenses, passports, and processes lawsuits and traffic tickets in the 19th Judicial District Court.

Sliman said there are six office credit cards, but only four in use.

“Our expenditures are public record,” Sliman said in a written statement. “They have passed our audits as legitimate and permissible business expenses and documentation is available in all cases to correspond with them.”

Holliday-James, also a Republican, said she initially requested the information because she received an anonymous letter from an employee in the Clerk’s Office that tipped her off to questionable spending habits.

“When I saw the credit cards with them eating out every day, every day, you’re going out to eat,” she said. “You should be using your own money to pay for your own food.”

The two will face off in the election this Saturday.

Conference trips

In the past few years, Welborn’s office has spent tens of thousands of dollars in hotels, often at casinos. Every out-of-town visit in Louisiana was at a hotel casino. There were also a few trips to resorts in Florida and Alabama.

While it’s typical for government officials to attend conferences, Welborn’s office often brought more than a dozen people on the trips. Sliman said all the trips were for work-related conferences and he provided registration material for most of the trips identified in the credit card receipts.

In 2014, there were 14 charges in February for rooms at the Paragon Hotel and Resort in Marksville that totaled about $5,000 on the credit card. Each of the entries was logged at $339 and appears to have a different employees’ name written next to each room charge. The entry for “Doug” clocked in at $600.

Two months later in April, it appears as though 19 rooms were charged, again with names of employees written on the credit card statements, at the L’Auberge Casino Resort in Lake Charles totaling $4,600.

And then in June of the same year, 10 more employees went to Resort Quest in Florida, costing $4,400. In total, the Clerk’s Office charged about $19,000 to the credit card for casino and hotel stays in 2014. The office spent almost $20,000 on hotels and casinos in 2013, the most expensive year for travel reviewed. But trips were taken every year.

In other years, members of the Clerk’s Office also charged the card for stays at Margaritaville Resort Casino and Horseshoe Casino, both in Bossier City.

“Travel expenses have been to conferences and meetings in which our staff is able to work with fellow clerks and their staffs,” Sliman said. “In addition, institutes are attended at which our office staff has conducted numerous sessions as instructors and moderators and staff members have earned official educational certification.”

There also were more than a dozen local charges to the card at Baton Rouge’s own downtown casinos Belle of Baton Rouge and Hollywood Casino. However, most of those were for the buffets, according to receipts provided by Sliman. There was a charge in November 2011 at the Belle of Baton Rouge for $1,690 for something identified by a plain typed piece of paper as a “breakfast meeting.” There was no formal brochure, but a program listed Welborn and four of his employees as giving presentations, from “opening prayer” to “project updates” to “policy and procedure update.”

There’s also one random charge to the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for $189 in 2011. The Clerk’s Office provided a receipt that indicated Greg Brown, chief deputy clerk of court, reimbursed the office for $575 expenses that included some meals, gas and the Bellagio payment.

Brown also was not available for comment, and Sliman said it was unclear why he’d used the government card in the first place. He said it was likely he mixed the cards up.

Food purchases

In 2011, there were at least 79 food-related expenditures, and in 2014 there were 66. That means meals were being purchased those years more than once a week.

Receipts provided by the Clerk’s Office were signed by various employees, often Gerard Hall, the clerk’s administrator of accounting.

The same group of names appears frequently on the backs of the receipts for restaurant bills, indicating the people who attended the lunch meeting: Welborn, Brown, Hall, Sliman and sometimes a few others.

“Dining expenses have been in the category of meetings in which office business has been conducted,” Sliman said.

Hundreds of dollars were also spent regularly at Lowes, Home Depot, National Welding Supply and other hardware stores. There were at least two purchases that came up for West Marine, a boat parts store. The first one was for a $183 tacklebag, but a receipt shows that it was returned. Another $41 “Marine ultra” cooler was subsequently purchased. Sliman called that purchase legitimate.

One of the Lowe’s receipts, which Sliman indicated was for maintenance at the rented storage unit, had items that included a chain, velcro, drill bits, hammers, three cans of paint in “chestnut,” “classic gray” and “gunstock” finishes, and an anchor shackle.

An anchor shackle is used by boaters to connect a rope to the anchor chain.

Welborn owns a boat and is a well-known fisherman. However, Hall said Tuesday that the shackle could have been used for a trailer hitch on a truck.

Another frequent expense was at a store called National Welding Supply, where receipts indicated the purchases were for propane tank refills. Hall said the propane is for a forklift used in the warehouse to move files.

“We stand behind the work of our auditors and accountants who review our expenditures on a regular basis,” Sliman said.