The Norfolk Economic Development Authority withheld travel expenses that show its former director lounged at a Vegas pool where women sometimes go topless, bought booze, and made a personal detour to St. Louis all on public money.
The agency only recently released a more full accounting of former director Steven Anderson’s trip to a Las Vegas commercial real estate conference after NewsChannel 3 pressed, saying the department’s response to our Freedom of Information Act did not appear complete or logical. It wasn’t until later NewsChannel 3 found out Anderson racked up more than $1,300 in charges the agency said were improper, including charges at a posh Caesar’s Palace pool, hotel mini-bar charges, and a car rental for personal business. All of that was purchased with the development agency’s credit card, but none of those records were provided in the EDA’s first response to NewsChannel 3. Days after NewsChannel 3 first inquired about Anderson’s trip, he resigned.
NewsChannel 3 heard reports that Anderson’s spending on that trip caused a stir, so on July 7 we asked under the Freedom of Information Act for all travel records related to his May, 2014, travel to the Las Vegas conference. Two other city officials attended the same conference. A week later, the city’s EDA provided a handful of records for airfare, cabs, hotel charges and small meals like pastries, pizza slices and hot dogs. In analyzing the airfare receipts, it appeared Anderson stayed extra days in Vegas and then spent a weekend in St. Louis, but the agency provided no records for those days.
The receipts provided also showed that in a week, Anderson only charged five meals, including one before his flight from Norfolk. NewsChannel 3 then pushed for an explanation from Jared Chalk, the EDA official who provided the receipts.
In an email, we asked, “Did Mr. Anderson submit any expenses for dinners or entertainment on any day? On the conference days, there are no meal expenses beyond lunch. Where are those? Also, I don’t have any receipts or documentation for any hotel expenses, meal expenses or anything other than airfare after 5/20/14. Why did Mr. Anderson remain in Las Vegas after the conference? Where did he stay? Was that city business?”
Chalk, from EDA did not respond for a week. He answered our email only after NewsChannel 3 said we would have to go over his head to a higher agency authority to get the questions answered.
On July 22, Chalk wrote: “Mike, sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I can provide you the information for most of your questions …. I have provided all the receipts related to the conference, including meals as per your FOIA request. If you are requesting additional documents, I will have those to you by the end of the week.”
On Thursday, when most news coverage was focused on the killer tornado that struck the Eastern Shore, Chalk provided more receipts from that trip, receipts that were left out of the EDA’s original response.
The charges included trips to a Caesar’s Palace pool called the “Venus Pool Club.” Online reviews note some women at the club are topless. The receipts also show mini-bar items listed as “intimacy” purchased during his stay. The agency also provided a charge of more than $200 for a rental car in St. Louis while Anderson was on personal business.
The agency also initially withheld Anderson’s explanations for some of the charges, as well as a letter to Anderson declaring more than $1,300 of the expenses were “unallowable.”
“These include room charges and meal/drink charges for time beyond the approved stay at the (conference) event and expenses related to the stay over in St. Louis,” wrote Jerry Robertson, the chairman of the development authority.
The records also show Anderson stayed in a hotel far more expensive than those selected by the other two city officials. One of the officials bunked in a Vegas hotel for $92 per night, while Anderson’s nightly charges at Caesar’s Palace approached $300. Chalk said that was because Caesar’s was the conference hotel, which was more expensive, but the conference documents do not support that claim. Conference materials do not list a conference hotel, but instead list suggested hotels for attendees. Caesar’s Palace was among the most expensive, and was two miles from the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Documents also reveal Anderson booked two round-trip flights, but only used one. Chalk says the EDA is asking for a refund for the unused flight, but that hasn’t happened. On the flights Anderson did take, receipts show he repeatedly paid for upgrades like early boarding and extra legroom, adding to the already-expensive air charges. Chalk said the EDA has no policy on officials purchasing upgrades.
On Friday, NewsChannel 3 asked Chalk in an email why the receipts and records for charges deemed “unallowable” were not included in the agency’s original response. He did not answer.