Originally created 06/18/04

Bureau had bill problem since 2001



Unpaid credit card charges at the city's tourism bureau went unnoticed for years, rather than months, as initially reported, and officials knew about the problems earlier than they let on.

News of the late fees, missed payments and outstanding balances created a brouhaha at the Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau because internal policy required the balance to be paid off each month, leading to the resignation of the director of finance and administration.

No fraud was found after outside auditors scoured through the books, and bureau officials acknowledge that much of the mess can be attributed to blind spots in oversight.

An open records request by The Augusta Chronicle produced bureau documents showing credit card statements as far back as 2001 carrying finance charges - some of which started off as just a few dollars - that ballooned to $4,000.Executive Director Barry White told The Chronicle last week that his bureau had traced the charges back a year at the most.

On Thursday, Mr. White said the policy breaches went on much longer.

"While preparing the paperwork for your request, we were forced to look further into the past and saw that it went on longer than we thought," Mr White said."Mistakes were made. We corrected them and own up to it," he said, adding that all charges have been fully paid. "It's unfortunate that this happened, but the fortunate thing is that we will improve our policies and procedures to ensure it doesn't happen again."

One possibility being considered is to replace the seven staff credit cards with new ones that don't allow balances to carry over, Mr. White said. He and others also will scrutinize monthly statements.

The bureau is responsible for promoting Augusta to tourists and visitor groups. It receives most of its money from lodging taxes.

Mr. White said the slip-up in payments stemmed from him and dif‚‚ferent treasurers over the years looking at the wrong line in the credit card statements. He said his focus was on making sure the purchases were authorized, and he didn't notice the growing gap between current charges and a card's outstanding balance.

"No system is foolproof or infallible," Mr. White said. "But rest assured, we will make it better."

Documents showed that Mr. White became aware of the finance charges in May 2003, months before telling his board of directors in March. He said up to that point he was led to believe the charges were no more than $300 and that he was assured his finance director at the time, Rachel Meehan, was bringing all the balances to zero. She didn't.

"I asked her, but nothing happened from May to February," Mr. White said. "I wasn't so concerned, because I thought the amounts were low."

A series of documents chronicle the action taken before Ms. Meehan left the bureau April 30, ending her five-year tenure.

Mr. White said he is still unclear why Ms. Meehan allowed the problem to arise and linger.

Ms. Meehan has declined to comment on issues involving her resignation. A letter she wrote to bureau officials April 16 tells the story.

"The responsibility to make sure these (finance and late char‚ges) are submitted on time is mine. I failed to do so in the past which has resulted in significant charges to the bureau," the letter said. "I understand by my written notice that if I continue to allow this to happen and do not resolve the situation, my employment will be terminated."

Reach Matthew Mogul at (706) 823-3352or matthew.mogul@augustachronicle.com.