How public officials ring up thousands of dollars of charges on public credit cards

Since January 2013 Dacula city councilman Gregory Reeves rang up more than $11,000 on his city credit card on pizza and fast food, car rentals and insurance, discount shoes and other charges, many of which city staff believed were for personal use.

City staff say Reeves had used his city credit card for personal charges for years. But because the city didn’t have a formal policy on credit card use, they believed they were powerless to stop him.

In an era when a credit card can be a perk of public office, even in small towns like Dacula, local governments are finding they can’t prevent abuses by relying on common sense and trust.

“Who would ever thought you’d have to have (a policy)?” Dacula Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks said. “Everyone knows that you can’t use the city credit card for personal stuff.”

Reeves, who was arrested last month and accused of theft in connection with his city credit card use, is not the only one who may have missed that lesson.

Last month, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer rang up more than $12,000 in personal purchases on her county Visa card, including airline tickets, rental cars and a ski resort booking. Some of the purchases were made while Boyer and her husband were having financial problems.

The commissioner reimbursed many of the charges. She told Channel 2 Action News that “it never dawned on me that what I was doing was wrong.”

Boyer issued a statement last week saying she and her top aide would suspend use of their county-issued cards.

Reeves and his lawyer did not return calls from the AJC seeking comment.

Some local governments have recently tightened their policies on credit card use to make it crystal-clear that no, you really can’t use that city credit card like it’s your own personal charge account. Last week, Gwinnett County commissioners approved a revised expense policy that spells out the rules for using county purchasing cards.

The Dacula City Council approved a city ordinance on the use of city credit cards last week, too. The new law puts the city administrator in charge of administering the cards’ use and spells out what the cards can and cannot be used for.

Reeves, who was still on the city council, was not present for that vote.

Until now, Dacula’s practice had been to ask cardholders to turn in receipts for purchases and have a finance employee reconcile the receipts with the bills each month, city administrator Jim Osborn said.

But the lack of formal rules about city credit card use allowed Reeves to repeatedly use his city credit card for what city staff and law enforcement officials say were personal charges.

Reeves was first elected to Dacula’s city council in 2005, six years after he resigned from his dispatcher position at the Chamblee Police Department after admitting he stole bond money.

Dacula finance director Kay Partain said she first noticed personal charges on Reeves’ city credit card bill several years after he took office.

“I would call him up and say you have personal charges and you need to pay them off because the city’s not paying for that,” she said.

“He would write a check and take it up” to the bank. “At first he kept saying he was using the wrong card, so we’d take care of it like that, but then it got to the point where we knew where it wasn’t a case of using the wrong card.”

Reeves, who at the time of his arrest worked for Papa John’s, charged $200 at Domino’s Pizza, more than $7,200 at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, $665 at various Gwinnett gas stations and convenience stores, and $32 at Payless Shoes.

Reeves paid about $5,600 of the approximately $11,000 he charged since January 2013. The last payment he made was in October 2013.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said Reeves could face additional criminal charges.

Dacula resident Jim Wall, who considered himself Reeves’ friend, said Reeves should have been removed from or resigned from the city council as soon as city staff or officials found he used the city card for personal purchases.

“The city’s loaning him our money to go out and do whatever he did with the money,” Wall said. “It doesn’t matter what he spent it on—it’s not his to give.”

In DeKalb County, staff didn’t monitor Commissioner Elaine Boyer’s spending because DeKalb commissioners run their offices autonomously. They can run up thousands of dollars on their Visa cards and answer to no one but themselves .

But Dacula city staff knew Reeves was charging personal purchases to his city Visa — they say they just couldn’t make him stop.

Dacula city administrator Jim Osborn and finance director Partain said they told Dacula Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks about the personal charges in September 2013, six months before Reeves’ arrest.

Wilbanks said he too believed he did not have the power to take away Reeves’ city Visa. But he talked to Reeves about the charges three times, he said.

Each time, Reeves told the mayor he’d “handle it,” Wilbanks said.

“I was trying to give him a chance to make it right,” Wilbanks said. “In hindsight, maybe I left it a little too long.”

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