Last month, the town's outside auditors, tipped by Finance Director John Johns, said they found a number of minor violations of town policies in employee expense reports.
A review of expense reports from the public works and police departments showed reimbursements for disallowed items such as valet parking and alcohol, according to Steve Larson of Caporicci & Larson auditing firm. Though the expenses only amount to a couple of thousand dollars, he recommended the town audit expense reports filed during the past year and tighten up its policy.
Questions about the expense reports arose in late August, around the time Mr. Johns was placed on paid administrative leave over charges that he created a hostile work environment. According to Mr. Johns, one of the complaints against him came from the Atherton Police Department.
Mr. Johns was suspended on Aug. 27, just as Caporicci & Larson auditors arrived to conduct their annual review of Atherton's finances. An investigation into the complaint is ongoing, said City Attorney Marc Hynes.
Mr. Johns has denied the charges and said that he is the one who has been threatened and intimidated in the course of doing his job.
The combination of the complaint against Mr. Johns by a police department employee, and an incident on Aug. 29 in which Atherton officers cited Mr. Johns for driving on an expired license outside of the town administrative offices, has caused speculation that there is a connection between Mr. Johns' suspension and his inquiry into police expense reports.
An Almanac examination of a year's worth of expense reports for police Chief Bob Brennan confirmed that the town's expense reimbursement policy wasn't followed to the letter in one case, when Chief Brennan attended a law enforcement conference in Boston last October. However, according to documents obtained by the Almanac through a public records request, the fault doesn't appear to lie with Chief Brennan.
It appears that then-City Manager Jim Robinson failed to get the City Council's approval of the trip, a technical violation of Atherton's expense reimbursement policy adopted in April 2006.
"I looked into that one, and Jim admits that Bob came to (him)," said Interim City Manager Wende Protzman. "I think it goes on the (council's agenda) as a consent item, but I don't believe that step was taken."
Mr. Robinson also approved reimbursement of $195 in valet parking fees and $19.70 for three glasses of wine ordered with meals. Mr. Robinson retired at the end of July, and the town is currently seeking a replacement.
The Almanac acquired copies of all Atherton employee expense reports for out-of-state travel in the past year, as well as all of Chief Brennan's expense reports. His trip to the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention at the Sheraton Boston was the only out-of-state trip reimbursed by the town during that period.
The reimbursements totaled $723 for hotel and meals, and did not include the $275 conference registration fee prepaid by the town or airfare to Boston.
Chief Brennan could not be immediately reached for comment.
According to Mr. Hynes, the repercussions for violating the town' expense policy could range from a verbal or written reprimand "to something more severe," depending on the specific situation. Failing to get council approval for out-of-state travel is something the City Council would have to take up with the city manager, Mr. Hynes said.