Customers of Bristol Virginia Utilities helped foot the bill for more than 700 BVU food purchases totaling at least $68,000 over an 18-month period, according to a review of credit card expenses from April 2012 to September 2013.
In light of ongoing questions about BVU’s past spending we requested all of the utility’s credit card expenses during that 18-month period, but BVU’s attorney denied our public records request.
“The April 2012 through September 2013 credit card accounting documents are not currently under our control, and I therefore cannot produce them,” Walt Bressler said.
Despite that denial, we were able to independently obtain the documents and confirm with multiple sources that they are in fact legitimate. Those documents tell a story of how BVU credit card holders fed their appetites.
The public utility remains the focus of a Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Washington County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office criminal investigation for alleged misuse of public funds.
Our review of BVU’s expenses found instances where the utility bought food for community events and fundraisers, training and board meetings. The documents revealed some of the more than two dozen BVU employees who have credit cards also made plenty of smaller purchases at area restaurants that added up.
For example, the public utility spent nearly $1,000 in an 18-month period at Blackbird Bakery. The documents show five BVU employees swiped their BVU credit cards a combined 26 times at the downtown bakery.
And that’s just the beginning. We found 42 charges totaling more than $6,200 at Logan’s, 130 charges adding up to more than $5,500 spent at Chick-fil-A, 53 charges equaling almost $4,500 at Cracker Barrel, 15 charges totaling more than $2,200 at Salsarita’s and a $743 bill at Martin’s KP Duty for a called board meeting.
|Restaurant||Total Cost||Number of Charges|
|The Chop House||$57||2|
|Martin’s KP Duty||$743||Called Board Meeting|
Those are just a sample. Practically every restaurant at Exit 7 in Bristol received a visit from a BVU credit cardholder during that time frame.
Among the people making multiple credit card charges for food was a BVU employee who spent almost $800 over 26 visits to two different Mexican restaurants.
Another person, according to credit card documents, who wasn’t afraid to swipe her BVU credit card multiple times was the utility’s chief financial officer. That woman today collects an annual salary of more than $193,000. Despite that paycheck, credit card statements show she made five visits to Starbucks spending roughly $30 and 32 separate trips to Chick-fil-A, costing customers just under $300. BVU customers also paid for a $12 trip to Sweet Frog.
“The things you’re talking about haven’t occurred in five, six months,” BVU Interim President and CEO Michael Bundy said of local food expenses. “We’re going forward.”
Since Bundy took over in August he has repeatedly said he has made major changes to control credit card spending. He says one of the changes now requires all expenses to go through him.
“I need to be looking at every single expense and that previously wasn’t happening,” Bundy said. “I’ll be the first to admit that our discretionary spending needed to be reigned in and I’m proud to say it has been reigned in and we’ve continued that trend for five months.”
Bundy stopped short of calling any of the charges we mentioned questionable. Still, he says the system needed to be changed and thanks to those changes, now he says BVU is saving rate payers tens of thousands of dollars on credit card purchases. He expects there to be $170,000 in credit card savings over a 12-month period. That said, Bundy would not say whether or not he feels customers deserve an apology for the past.
“I think I owe them making us as efficient and effective as I can,” Bundy said. “I think I owe keeping the lights on, the water running and the bandwidth flowing at the lowest cost possible and that’s the trajectory that we’re on.”
According to Bundy, since he’s been at the helm there have been no more trips to Blackbird Bakery and no more personal food spending by any cardholders. Bundy says unless food is needed for training, board meetings or other meetings, personal food expenses will not be allowed. Bundy says while BVU never had a formal meal policy before, the utility is now considering creating one.
“Driving downtown and getting a Starbucks on a company credit card just is not going to happen,” Bundy said. “As far as an individual employee going somewhere and having lunch by themselves and just deciding it’s going to be on BVU? Not going to happen.”
Doug Fleenor continues to be the only BVU board member who has shared his concerns publicly.
“I think that there’s an economic depression potentially in the Exit 7 area with the loss of the revenue from Bristol Virginia Utilities,” Fleenor said.
Fleenor was the one who tipped off authorities to possible criminal activity at BVU last year. Today the criminal defense attorney says he stands behind that decision.
“I’ve been told up there that it’s just bad judgment,” Fleenor said of the reasons behind some of the expenses. “I have tried that defense in front of judges for 20 years. I’ve argued it to juries before when I didn’t have anything else and guess what? My people get convicted. I’ve looked into the Virginia criminal jury instructions and I still haven’t found bad judgment as a defense.”
So will any of the credit charges turn into criminal charges? That remains the question. Senior Detective James Blevins previously said the 18 months worth of expenses we obtained are among the things he is reviewing as part of his investigation.
Bundy said no one has been terminated as a result of spending practices. However, he would not disclose if any employee has faced internal discipline. He also wouldn’t address whether any employees are paying back any of the money they spent, telling us he couldn’t speak about something that could be the subject of the criminal investigation.
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- BVU head: “I’ll be the first to admit some of our discretionary spending needed to be reigned in”
- BVU interim leader talks, utility investigation findings
- BVU sends email to board members addressing Monday night’s Community Watchdog investigation
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