Former House Speaker David Gowan deliberately put off the release of public records last year to buy time to disguise questionable spending by his staff, himself, and fellow lawmakers.
At the heart of the matter is a whitewashed spreadsheet purporting to document the chamber’s sharp increase in travel expenses under Gowan.
The House took eight months to disclose the spreadsheet as part of a public records request the Arizona Capitol Times made on January 19, 2016, but Gowan’s administration never turned over the underlying travel records that the newspaper requested and from which the spreadsheet was built.
Those records are also part of an investigation by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the findings of which are expected to be released in the coming weeks.
Some of the lawmakers and staff whose questionable spending is documented are either running for statewide office in 2018, vying to return to the Legislature or holding high level government jobs.
More than a year after the Capitol Times filed its initial request and after Gowan had officially left office, his successor, Speaker J.D. Mesnard, turned over a trove of documents – thousands of pages of travel request forms, receipts, state credit card statements, conference registrations, emails and other documents – that show the full extent of the freewheeling travel spending of House staffers and lawmakers under Gowan.
And emails from the Gowan administration, also turned over by Mesnard, show staff attempted to disguise some of that spending by providing the Capitol Times with the whitewashed summary of the chamber’s travel costs in a spreadsheet.
That spreadsheet left off thousands of dollars in costs originally incurred by taxpayers, for which the state was later reimbursed, either by outside organizations or by lawmakers and staff themselves.
For example, then-House attorney Rob Ellman sent an email on July 14, 2016, to Gowan and several top staffers saying the spreadsheet was ready to be disclosed.
‘Final, final version’
“Here’s the final, final version… We deleted negative entries for ‘refunded’ amounts and adjusted the amounts from which ‘refunds’ were drawn,” Ellman wrote.
This last-minute striking of expenses from the spreadsheet eliminated the record of trips taken by the speaker; former House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who is now spokeswoman for First Lady Melania Trump; deputy chief of staff Brett Mecum, and deputy chief of staff Leslie Sorenson.
“We deleted passport and ‘fast pass’ expenses from the Speaker’s report (an adjustment of approximately $360) on the ground that those were not direct travel expenses attributable to specific travel events. Opinions differ on that point,” Ellman wrote.
A Fast Pass is a special pass the Transportation Security Administration sells that allows a traveler to get through airport checkpoints quickly.
The documents and emails also show a clearly orchestrated attempt to delay the release of the records long enough for lawmakers and staff to repay the state for trips and travel originally paid by taxpayers. The aim of the delay appears to be an attempt to reflect the numbers that showed only the expenses after reimbursements were made.
Former chief of staff Tami Stowe would be sending a “PDF (no metadata) version” of the spreadsheet to the Capitol Times, Ellman said in his email to Gowan and staff. But Mecum quickly responded that Gowan had asked him to once-again delay the release of the public records.
Mesnard said he now understands that the previous administration kept several different versions of the travel accounting spreadsheets, and he believes Gowan specifically ordered his staff to at least “not be overly accommodating” to the attempts to gain access to the chamber’s accounting records.
Mesnard has since commissioned a committee to study and re-write the chamber’s travel policy.
“I will say this much: I think mistakes were made over the last couple of years. As to who is at fault, it’s probably a combination of people. But at the end of the day, the buck stops with the speaker,” Mesnard said.
The new travel policy, which was enacted in June, takes aim at many of the controversial practices that were rampant in the Gowan years.
Some of the changes were aimed at banning the use of state vehicles, with limited exceptions, and requiring lawmakers to verify whether they would be using their own vehicles or state cars to catch any attempts at double-dipping by using a state vehicle while claiming reimbursements for personal vehicle mileage, as Gowan had.
Other rule changes banned lawmakers and staff from ordering room service and in-room movies on the public’s dime.
Taxpayers paid for Gowan’s passport and “fast pass” allowing him to get through airport security quicker, the records show. The House initially purchased the documents for an event in Canada that Gowan never attended. But the expenses weren’t listed on the travel spreadsheet provided to the Capitol Times by the House, despite protestations from House staff, who thought it should be included.
House fiscal policy adviser Travis Swallow argued in an email to Mecum that the passport and “fast pass” expenses needed to be reported.
“The passport was purchased for one particular travel event, even if the Speaker was later unable to attend that event. The cost did occur and should be recorded as a travel expense,” Swallow said in his email. Swallow then continued to urge Mecum to reconsider his decision to omit those details from the travel report.
“Has the Speaker used the passport for any other travel other than House travel? Does he expect to use it in the future for anything other than House travel? If so, he should consider reimbursing the House for the passport,” Swallow said.
Gowan eventually reimbursed the state for the passport, and the expense never appeared on the travel expense spreadsheet.
He never reimbursed the state for the “fast pass,” nor was it listed on the spreadsheet.
After the Capitol Times initial investigation into the House’s use of state vehicles, Gowan repaid the state $12,000, specifically for mileage reimbursements he claimed for trips that he actually took in state vehicles and for days he claimed to work but did not.
Gowan didn’t return calls for comment for this article, but Mecum, his former deputy chief of staff, said after the email from Swallow, that Gowan asked him to repay the state, which Mecum did in cash.
The conference Gowan couldn’t attend was in September 2015, and Gowan didn’t repay the state until after Ellman said he had a “final final draft” of the spreadsheet in July 2016.
The spreadsheet also left out a trip then-House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, who is now running for secretary of state, took to Miami Beach, Fla. for a State Government Affairs Council conference in November 2015. The House paid for Montenegro’s $826 flight on the state credit card. But that trip never appears on the spreadsheet provided by the House.
Emails show that after Montenegro RSVP’s for the conference, Grisham joined in and attended the conference with Montenegro “as his staff.”
DECISIONS WERE MADE BY THE SPEAKER
Although email records show at least one of Grisham’s trips was zeroed out, her trip with Montenegro was well-documented on the spreadsheet. The state paid $2,047 for her to attend the five-day conference held at a South Miami Beach luxury hotel. Much of Montenegro’s trip was paid for by the organization hosting the conference, including up to $500 in travel costs.
About a month after the email announcing that Gowan had asked his staff to once again delay the release of the records, Montenegro reimbursed the state $326 in cash for the remainder of his airfare to Miami.
Montenegro said he had decided to attend the conference at the last-minute, and didn’t want to leave taxpayers on the hook for the remainder of the expense. The state received the reimbursement more than eight months after the trip.
“With everything going on, I asked my office to go through everything… I said look, I want to know where our office is, and if there’s any mistakes, I want to catch them myself,” he said.
Montenegro said he understands how the repayments, which came as the House was refusing to disclose travel records, could look suspicious.
“I can certainly understand that. But I was not in charge. First of all, there were decisions being made by the speaker, and there was an attorney who signed off on the decisions,” he said. Montenegro said those trips should have appeared as paid for by the House and later reimbursed, rather than being zeroed out completely.
“I don’t know how they do accounting. That’s not an area that I do or decisions that I made. But the public deserves always to know if we’re attending conferences or whatever it is, absolutely,” he said.
The spreadsheet also doesn’t reflect a trio of side-trips Mecum took while on official state business.
On three occasions, Mecum attended conferences, and tacked on an extra leg of the trips to visit friends or family. The House originally paid the full bill for his travels, he said, but he reimbursed the state afterward for the personal portion of the trips.
“On three different occasions, I issued a check to cover the excess amount,” Mecum said. “I had asked accounting to do it, and they were pretty slow. What they eventually would do is say, ‘David Gowan’s trip (to D.C.) was $550 or whatever, and your (total trip to D.C. and South Carolina) was $700 or whatever, so just pay us the difference.’”
Those repayments are also not listed on the spreadsheet provided by Gowan.
Mesnard said it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to take trips that are initially paid for on the House credit card, and later reimbursed or partially reimbursed by the organization hosting the event. But he said that should have been documented and properly accounted for, and under his administration, all travel expenses and reimbursements will be clearly recorded on a master travel spreadsheet that will be readily available to the public.
“I had heard there were multiple versions of (travel expense) spreadsheets,” Mesnard said. “That’s never good.”