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Gov.’s top aide charged personal purchases to state

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From a necktie to heartburn medication, from personal cellphone bills to new tires, Gov. Susana Martinez’s chief of staff used his government-issued credit card to make thousands of dollars in personal purchases in violation of state policy and procedures.

Keith Gardner has reimbursed the state nearly $5,000 since August 2012 for more than 40 card purchases at Walmart, Best Buy, Target and more. And after a Journal inquiry, he has paid $241 in interest required under state policy and procedures when an employee uses a government credit card for personal purchases.

Using a state government credit card for any purpose other than state business is prohibited. The policy and procedures say that if a card is misused, an agency shall follow disciplinary procedures up to termination and take away the card. Gardner, who is paid $136,350 a year, has kept the card and faced no discipline, but future charges must be approved in advance. Further, he said he hadn’t actually misused the card because there was no intent to defraud the state.

Gardner said in a recent interview that his use of the government credit card to make personal purchases didn’t comply with policy and procedures and was “poor practice and sloppy,” but that the reimbursements were evidence he had no intent to enrich himself at taxpayer expense. He typically made reimbursements for purchases between one and three months after the transactions.

“My intentions were always to make sure this was made whole,” he said.

But in a change in practice, he said, the chief financial officer and one of the deputy chiefs of staff in the Governor’s Office must now give prior approval of any planned use by Gardner of his credit card.

GARDNER: Chief of staff reimbursed state

GARDNER: Chief of staff reimbursed state

Most of the reimbursed purchases were made in the past year, and individual reimbursed charges ranged from less than $1 to more than $1,000. There were at least 10 transactions of more than $100 each. Some purchases were tax-free because of the use of a government credit card.

In January 2011, when the Martinez administration took office, Gardner signed a cardholder agreement saying he had been trained in and understood state policy and procedures for use of the credit card, including the ban on personal purchases.

“I understand that my failure to follow the policies and procedures will result in disciplinary action against me including, but not limited to: suspension, termination of employment, and/or criminal prosecution,” the agreement says.

Gardner, a former member of the state House of Representatives and previous manager of a physical rehabilitation clinic in Roswell, said he came from the private sector, where it isn’t uncommon for an employee to be permitted to use a company credit card for personal purchases, then make reimbursements.

If a government credit card – known as a procurement, or “P,” card – is misused by an employee, state policy and procedures also require an agency to seek full restitution plus 18 percent interest from the dates of any improper transactions.

Gardner said he learned of the required interest charges on personal purchases after the Journal inquiry about his credit card use. He wrote a check for $241 to the Department of Finance and Administration to cover the fees on April 11.

“If I had known of that (required interest charge), we would have done it all along,” the chief of staff said.

The Department of Finance and Administration produced records for Gardner’s credit card use after a request under the state Inspection of Public Records Act. It took the department two months to provide the records.

State credit cards are used throughout government by employees who travel frequently, office administrators, executive assistants and others to make purchases of goods and services.

Gardner is among those who travel frequently on government business, and he has used his credit card to pay travel expenses for others in the Governor’s Office and to purchase office furniture, equipment and supplies.

Records produced by the DFA show Gardner reimbursed the state a total of $4,528 from August 2012 to February of this year.

After the Journal request for the records, further reconciliation of the credit card account found another $448 in personal purchases by Gardner, according to an administration spokesman. He reimbursed the state for those transactions with a check dated April 11.

On most of the reimbursement forms, the field for the purpose of the reimbursement was left blank. Lost receipt and wrong credit card were listed as purposes for a few reimbursements.

In addition to purchases at Walmart, Best Buy and Target, Gardner reimbursed for purchases from AT&T, hotels, restaurants, airport gift shops, a provider of online entertainment, airlines, a tire shop in Phoenix and more.

Among the items purchased and later reimbursed: a necktie at a Williamsburg, Va., hotel, heartburn medication and iPhone accessories from Walmart, car fresheners from Best Buy, a copy of the magazine Popular Science from an airport gift shop, a coin display case from Michaels and a Southwest Airlines fee for Gardner’s wife.

It’s impossible to tell what all the reimbursed purchases were for, because the records don’t include receipts for most of the transactions. Gardner couldn’t recall what many of the purchases were for but explained some of the larger charges.

Keith Gardner, chief of staff for Gov. Susana Martinez, has reimbursed the state nearly $5,000 in connection with purchases on his official state credit card.

Keith Gardner, chief of staff for Gov. Susana Martinez, has reimbursed the state nearly $5,000 in connection with purchases on his official state credit card.

Phone charge

Gardner reimbursed the state in July for a $913.81 AT&T charge the previous month on the credit card, and he reimbursed the state in February for a $617.76 AT&T charge in November.

“Bill payment” was the description listed for the AT&T charges on the credit card statements.

In explaining the first AT&T charge, Gardner said his personal cellphone was lost or stolen while he was on state business in Washington, D.C., and he used his government credit card to get a replacement because use of his personal debit card had been frozen due to issues related to identity theft.

As for the second AT&T charge, Gardner said that when he received an electronic billing for use of the replacement cellphone, he mistakenly responded “yes” when AT&T asked if he wanted to pay with the same credit card used to purchase the phone.

The largest single credit card transaction reimbursed by Gardner was a $1,056.57 charge in June for a hotel just south of Washington, D.C. He made the reimbursement in August.

Gardner said he and his wife – who is an administrator with the state Public Education Department – were scheduled to be on business trips in the area at the same time and planned to share a room and split the cost on their government expense forms.

Gardner said he ended up not making the trip but his government credit card was billed for his wife’s stay at the hotel because he had used the card to guarantee the room.

He also reimbursed the state for a $226.68 credit card charge in March 2013 at a hotel in Park City, Utah. The reimbursement was made in June.

Gardner said the charge may have been for incidental hotel charges while on state business in Park City or for a night in Park City with his wife after his business had concluded.

Gardner reimbursed the state $211.15 in January for a charge in November at a tire store in Phoenix.

He said he had driven his personal vehicle to Phoenix on state business and had pulled a trailer with household goods because he also planned to visit his father in Arizona.

Gardner said he hit a curb while driving on a cold and rainy day and had to replace the two tires on the trailer. He said he used his government credit card because he had left his personal card at a hotel.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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