Washtenaw County Clerk releases findings on Commissioner Mark Ouimet's expenses
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
(This story has been revised to correct information about changes to the county board rules. While the county board did change its rules this year, what hasn't changed in six years is which meetings commissioners can and can't collect payments for attending.)
Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum released a report to the county Board of Commissioners today, calling into question more than $10,000 in expenses billed to the county by Republican Commissioner Mark Ouimet from 2005 to 2009.
But that doesn't necessarily mean Ouimet violated county rules or improperly collected payments during that time, according to Kestenbaum.
"Until the beginning of this year, there really weren't any standards that were enforced," he said. "I suppose you could study the rules and maybe figure something out, but essentially the per diems that were submitted went straight to payroll to be paid."
The clerk's report follows claims made by the Washtenaw County Democratic Party that Ouimet billed the county for thousands of dollars worth of mileage reimbursements and "per diems" for his attendance at meetings that weren't eligible for such payments.
The Washtenaw County Republican Committee is standing up for Ouimet, saying he shouldn't be penalized for potentially violating rules that were unclear in years past.
"If there are ineligible expenses, it wasn't clear at the time that they were ineligible," said GOP Chairman Mark Boonstra. "I think if you look at the written statement from Washtenaw County as to what qualifies, it is anything but clear. I can read that and I can't tell you what meetings qualify, and that's part of the problem here."
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The county board changed its rules this year, setting a limit of $3,550 per commissioner for travel and per diems. But what hasn't changed is which meetings commissioners can and can't collect payments for attending.
The rules state, and have stated for the six years Ouimet has been a commissioner, that commissioners can only collect per diems for attendance at a "committee, subcommittee meeting or working session of the board, when the member has been properly appointed to that committee or subcommittee." The rules also allow per diems for attendance at a "meeting of a non-board committee, subcommittee, commission, board, or attendance at a conference or convention as a representative of Washtenaw County when the member of the board serves by appointment of the Board of Commissioners or the chair of the board."
Kestenbaum, a Democrat, said he agreed with the GOP that the rules for per diems weren't entirely clear until this year. He said his office isn't asking Ouimet to repay the county — that's a matter up to the county board to decide.
Commissioner Kristin Judge, a Democrat, disagreed with the assertion that it was unclear in years past which meetings were eligible for per diems. She maintains that Ouimet collected payments for meetings that weren't eligible.
"The only thing that happened to change in 2010 was something that Commissioner (Wesley) Prater and I wrote that put in an internal financial control and gave the county clerk the authority to turn down per diems that did not meet the board rules," she said. "But the board rules for what counted as a per diem expense were always the same."
Ouimet, who is running for the 52nd District state House seat against Democrat Christine Green, said today he's disputing the findings of the clerk's report due to the procedure used to investigate the claims. Ouimet called for an independent, nonpartisan investigation into the travel expenses of all 11 commissioners on the county board.
“I’m very disappointed with the negative campaigning this election cycle. This is nothing but a distraction from the real issues facing Michigan families, which are jobs and stopping government overspending," he said in a statement. "To bring the focus back to what families are concerned about and to remove any perception of inappropriateness, I am calling for an independent, nonpartisan investigation into all county commissioner spending, both in-district and out-of-state, my own spending included."
Kestenbaum said he assigned Jason Brooks, a deputy with the clerk's office, to conduct the analysis of Ouimet's expenses from 2005 to 2009. He said he believes a fair and impartial evaluation was done by Brooks, who works closely with commissioners on a regular basis and takes minutes at board meetings. Brooks also is the staff member of the clerk's office responsible for approving commissioner expenses.
"I think everyone sees him as being very fair, honest and reasonable. I have noting but high praise for him," Kestenbaum said. "So this was not my doing as a Democrat."
The clerk's report shows Ouimet collected $25 per diem payments for 297 meetings that would be ineligible for per diems under today's standards. That adds up to $7,425. Ouimet also collected $3,139 in mileage reimbursements for driving to those meetings, the report shows.
Another $6,055 in expenses claimed by Ouimet are flagged as "uncertain" in the report, meaning it's not entirely clear whether they would or wouldn't be eligible.
The report determined 108 meetings Ouimet billed the county for were clearly eligible for per diems and mileage. The expenses for those meetings added up to $16,186.
Ouimet said in his statement he believes "partisan politics" are at play.
“Despite recent allegations, I followed the county policies for reimbursements," he said. "Following the procedures the board has had in place, I’ve done everything by the book and each in-district reimbursement was approved by the clerk."
Ouimet said he plans to put money into an escrow account until an independent investigation is done. If such an investigation finds he received any money in error, he said, he'll pay it back.
County records show Ouimet has far outpaced other commissioners in billing the county for per diems. In 2009, all 11 commissioners combined to claim $18,650. Of that, $6,550 went to Ouimet, while the other 10 commissioners averaged $1,210 apiece.
In 2008, the 11 commissioners combined to claim $15,325 in per diems. Ouimet accounted for $6,450 — or about 42 percent of the total for the entire board that year.
The GOP says that just shows Ouimet's work ethic.
"It's fair to say that Commissioner Ouimet charged per diems for meetings he attended under what he understood to be the standards in Washtenaw County," Boonstra said. "It's also fair to say that Mark had more per diems than other commissioners because he's been the hardest working, most diligent commissioner that Washtenaw County has."
GOP Vice Chairman Wyckham Seelig agreed.
"If you know Mark, you know that he hardly spends any night at home," Seelig said. "His district has eight governmental units, and when he got involved in the road patrol issue, he was working on issues that covered the entire county."
Among the nearly 300 meetings Ouimet billed the county for that wouldn't be eligible by today's standards, according to the clerk's report, are meetings with township officials, attorneys, the county administrator, The Ann Arbor News, AnnArbor.com and nonprofit groups.
The Democratic Party claims Ouimet violated county board rules that state commissioners are entitled to per diems only for attending meetings of the county board and its committees, as well as other authorized county-related boards and committees on which commissioners serve. The GOP maintains that wasn't spelled out clearly in the past.
"The problem here is the line was moving around and the line wasn't clear to begin with," Boonstra said. "And so here we are, years after some of these per diems were received, with someone second-guessing whether or not they were properly charged under the rules, which are anything but clear. And we're looking at that issue only for one Republican commissioner, as opposed to looking at it for everybody. What we need to do is have a clear standard, no matter what it is, and apply it to everyone equally on a going-forward basis."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.