EDUCATION

Elected official used school district credit card for personal purchases

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ROCKVILLE, Md. (WJLA) - A Montgomery County Board of Education member who made personal purchases with taxpayer dollars vows he'll never do it again.

Current member and former board president, Chris Barclay, used his school district American Express card to buy meals, rent cars, and stay at hotels. Expense reports obtained by ABC7 show the 53-year-old made 14 unauthorized purchases between Jan. 2012 and Feb. 2014. All combined, the charges siphoned $1450.89 from school district coffers.

Barclay spent $906 on Hotwire.com, $210 at a Lancaster Pa. Ramada Inn, $73 at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and hundreds more at stores and restaurants like CVS, Safeway, 7-Eleven, Armand's Chicago Pizzeria, and Popeyes. Barclay claimed it was an honest mistake all 14 times, but records show he then took months, and in one case more than a year, to pay back his debts -- interest-free.

"How was it caught," ABC7's Kevin Lewis asked Barclay during a sit-down interview.

"I can't go through line-by-line. I don't know all of them to say this one was this way, or that one was that way. I'm sorry, I just can't do that," Barclay said.

Ironically enough, the Silver Spring resident, who's currently campaigning for the hotly contested District 5 Montgomery County Council seat, sits on MCPS' Fiscal Management Committee.

"I mistakenly used the board credit card and anytime it was brought to my attention, I paid it back," Barclay, who earns $25,000 a year as a BOE member added.

"Was it ever intentional?" Lewis asked Barclay.

"Intentional, no," Barclay replied.

"All 14 times, it was purely a mistake?" Lewis asked in return.

"Like I said, I made a mistake. Anytime it was brought to my attention, I took care of it," Barclay fired back.

"That's using taxpayer money to give yourself a no-interest loan," said Janis Sartucci. "This was simply his way of fronting himself money."

Sartucci is a key leader of the Montgomery County Parents' Coalition, an organization advocating for better government transparency. Sartucci would like MCPS to post every school district credit card statement online for public review.

"This is a situation where the cards clearly can be used for non-authorized purchases without any oversight," Sartucci added. "We'd like to see that change."

Take food, for example. Since Jan. 2012, Barclay has bought 131 meals with his school district credit card; a tab worth more than $3,800. Yet records show that 55-percent of those purchases (77 in total) violated school district policy as Barclay failed to turn in an itemized receipt and/or identify who he was meeting with.

Montgomery County Public Schools' finance rules clearly state: "Itemized meal receipts must be submitted... for reimbursement." And, "Restaurant receipts must be annotated with the names of the meeting participants."

Despite those unmet standards, Board of Education Chief of Staff, Roland Ikheloa, approved all 131 of Barclay's meals, receipt or not. On that list, a $174 lunch at Ruby Tuesday, a $78 dinner at Matchbox Pizza, and a $75 meal at a Rockville Thai restaurant.

"I work with our staff to make sure they have all the information they need," Barclay told ABC7.

"But the information you provided staff went directly against policy," Lewis stated.

"Anytime they [BOE staff members] asked me, what was the information they needed for that receipt, I would provide that information," Barclay responded.

MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig didn't explain why Ikheloa repeatedly bent the rules for Barclay, but instead outlined a behind-the-scenes internal appeals process.

"If there is a question about an expense, then Mr. Ikheloa and/or the board staff will follow up with the board member to get the relevant information. If there is a concern about a specific expense, it is this process that will identify the concern and then it is resolved with the board member," Tofig wrote in an email.

The questionable accounting comes to light after a year of repeated trips to Annapolis, where Superintendent Starr and his cohorts begged state leaders for additional school funding. Starr cited a dramatic spike in student population, a trend that MCPS argues its current budget can't sustain.

"I would say poor is in the eye of the beholder. If this is what Montgomery County considers to be poor, I'd bet there are other counties in the state that might beg to differ."

Unlike MCPS' Board of Education, the Montgomery County Council doesn't issue credit cards to its members. Council spokesman Neil Greenberger says councilmembers pay with cash, submit itemized receipts, and only then are they reimbursed.

"History has proven that there are individuals that get themselves in situations that taint an organization," Greenberger remarked. "Not having credit cards minimizes even an honest mistake."

ABC7 has requested expense reports for all seven other Montgomery County Board of Education members, Superintendent Joshua Starr, and a handful of other top administrators. The school system is still preparing that paperwork.

"This really comes back to the taxpayers and citizens of Montgomery County saying, 'Is this really the best use of our precious education dollars, or is this what people expect from their public school system,'" Sartucci remarked.

"If we request your records two years from now, what would look different?" Lewis asked Barclay.

"I'm sure you won't see me anytime making personal expenses with my school district card," Barclay concluded.

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