RICHMOND (WRIC)—Your tax dollars were used to help fund a private vacation in Las Vegas for a public employee and his wife. ABC 8 News Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe discovered this, as he continued to dig into how the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority is spending your money.
This past fall, former RRHA Police Chief Hal Hazleton was suspended and fired under a cloud of innuendo and secrecy; the real reasons for his termination have not been made public.
Just this week, Hazleton sued agency heads at RRHA for $500,000, claiming he was fired for malicious reasons to muzzle and discredit him. Lagoe has been investigating how RRHA does business for some time, and what he found is some very suspicious spending on the former chief's public credit card.
For Hazleton, it was supposed to be a business trip—a flight from Richmond to San Diego in late September 2012 to attend the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual training event at the San Diego Convention Center. In light of ABC 8 News' recent investigation exposing an RRHA commissioner funding a bus trip to a casino with taxpayer funds, Lagoe began examining expenses on RRHA-issued credit cards.
"It's our tax dollars that fund what they're doing," said Rick Tatnall of Better Government Richmond.
Tatnall is correct; Lagoe found that what Richmonders' tax dollars are actually funding is upsetting to not only government watchdogs, but also to people who call the communities Hazleton was tasked with policing home.
"I think it's a bunch of bull!" one resident said.
Lagoe examined hundreds of pages of credit card records and travel reports and found that Chief Hazleton wasn't alone on his trip. Instead of just one $158 flight to San Diego, there were two. The same goes for the return flight—two tickets costing $189 each were purchased. The return tickets are not even from San Diego, where the IACP conference was held; they're from Las Vegas.
ABC 8 News obtained records that show Hazleton did not travel with another RRHA police officer—he was with his wife, Ashley. The couple checked two bags at $25 each; once they landed in San Diego, they rented a car that cost you, the Richmond taxpayer, $488.74. RRHA travel policy states that car rentals should only be for business "necessity" and should be an economy or mid-size car, unless three more RRHA employees are present.
The Hazletons rented a "full-size" car. There's nothing to document the business necessity of the eight-day rental, especially considering the conference only lasted five days. In addition, the Hilton San Diego Bayfront they stayed in is connected to the San Diego Convention Center; hotel parking alone cost $108.
"There's a lot of money that is being spent incorrectly, inappropriately or just flat out in the wrong way," Tatnall said.
Credit receipts show meals out at restaurants, where Hazleton was a generous tipper during his trip. RRHA policy says gratuity at meals is to be 15 percent. At these meals, Hazleton tipped 20 percent. The couple checked out of the Hilton early on Oct. 3, 2012, with a $1,464.22 hotel bill. Hazleton did not even stay for the final training workshop at the conference, which cost Richmond taxpayers $495 in membership and registration fees. A receipt shows that at 1:25 p.m. that afternoon, the Hazletons were 171 miles away from San Diego, gassing up on the chief's RRHA credit card at a Shell Station in Barstow, Ca. They put $51.89 in the tank. Three days later, long after the San Diego conference was over, the rental car was returned—at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport.
On the flight home from Las Vegas to Richmond, the Hazletons checked three bags that cost Richmond taxpayers $85. After they landed, you, the taxpayer, paid for parking the chief's vehicle at Richmond International Airport—not just for the conference days, but also for the time spent in Las Vegas, for a total of $96.
Ashley Hazleton wrote on Facebook, "Home seet home" and confirmed to a friend they were "N Vegas."
Seeing what ABC 8 News uncovered, citizen watchdog Rick Tatnall questions RRHA's oversight of Hazleton's trip on the taxpayers' dime.
"The biggest thing is just the oversight of some of these expenditures that are obviously inappropriate," Tatnall said.
Two months after the trip, an RRHA accounting technician questioned Chief Hazleton's credit card charges, writing to her boss, "To date, there's been no monetary reimbursement." The next day, the Hazletons cut a check for $347.20, covering the exact cost of just Ashley Hazleton's plane tickets.
Chief Hazleton refused Lagoe's requests for an interview, but in an email he wrote, "I will say, this, along with any and all other business trips taken while I was employed by RRHA, were completed and reconciled in accordance with the appropriate policies and procedures in effect at that time."
But RRHA has no record of being reimbursed for the luggage fees, rental car, gas, parking, or any other expenses occurred during the conference and Las Vegas vacation Richmond taxpayers paid $3,310.96 for.
It was more than a year after the trip that Chief Hazleton was suspended and fired. Lagoe asked RRHA CEO Adrienne Goolsby, who was notified of the suspicious spending a year ago and appears to have done nothing at the time, to sit down for an interview. Through a spokesperson, Goolsby repeatedly refused to speak with ABC 8 News.
Lagoe has confirmed that there is an ongoing administrative investigation underway at RRHA involving former employees of its police department, but there's no word on whether this apparent misuse of public funds is part of that.
Also, after ABC 8 News' report on an RRHA commissioner's publicly-funded trip to a Casino, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it would be launching its own investigation of the RRHA, which is still in progress.
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