Pinal County’s public works director took a trip to Las Vegas’ upscale Bellagio hotel in March on the county’s dime, claiming the public works department won a “national award.”
It didn’t. The county did, however, spring more than $2,000 for director Greg Stanley and his wife to stay for a four-day conference at one of Las Vegas’ premier hotels, according to travel records obtained by the Tribune.
The conference, sponsored by the Associated General Contractors of America, recognized Sundt Construction Inc. with an award for roadwork on Ironwood Drive/Gantzel Road — a key link from U.S. 60 to the booming suburbia in Pinal County, according to the association’s Web site.
Association officials confirmed Sundt Construction received the “excellence in partnering,” from which it reaped tens of millions of dollars from road improvements contracted by Pinal County.
“It’s all construction companies and construction professionals that are recognized with the awards,” said Monica Cardenas, a spokeswoman for the group based in Arlington, Va.
Stanley could not be reached for comment. County officials said he was on vacation and would not provide a cell phone number to reach him.
A.J. Blaha, deputy director for public works, said while the county didn’t receive a plaque in Las Vegas, Stanley’s attendance at the event is similar to a recognized employee inviting “your boss there.”
Stanley’s travel to Las Vegas was only a portion of the department’s spending on trips.
In the first quarter of 2008, some of the department’s 215 workers racked up $14,830.64 on Stanley’s Wells Fargo corporate travel card issued by the county, according to official records.
The charges represent 20 percent of all travel charges incurred on the 37 credit cards held by department heads and county employees from Jan. 1 to March 31.
The travel costs come at a difficult financial time for the county, which is facing $13 million in a projected deficit for the budget year ending June 30.
The county implemented a hiring freeze in late March, less than a week before a public works’ conference that cost the county about $5,000. [CORRECTION: This story originally stated that the county spent $10,000 in March for business-related travel.]
The department has recently sent employees to Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Corpus Christi, Texas, and San Antonio for business-related conferences.
However, inconsistent record-keeping by the public works department obscures in several cases the “public purpose” for those trips.
In an internal e-mail this year, Trisha Mudd, who works for public works, informed the department’s higher-ups that the “public purpose (for travel) was not noted on pre-trip request forms.” Another e-mail explained that “in the past we were able to plug in ‘training, conference, etc.’ for this section. Finance is now requiring a brief description.”
Stanley responded to the e-mails in a handwritten message. It is difficult to determine who the note was sent to and its contents are hard to read.
For the trip to Vegas, Stanley wrote, “To represent Pinal County — as it received a national award from the Association of General Contractors.”
He described the public benefits as learning new “construction techniques” and “contracting methods.”
The conference’s agenda, however, shows that the $540 conference was geared more toward construction industry interests than those of government bodies.
For instance, a 10 a.m. session on March 10 was designed to teach strategies for private-sector business growth. Another session later that day explained “gaining marketing advantage with excellent customer service.”
There’s no record of the sessions that Stanley attended. The association persuades members to attend the conference to “place your company before decision makers from contracting firms.”
Blaha said that it gives the agency exposure to the kind of companies it could retain for large public-works projects in the future.
Pinal County is the third-fastest growing county in the nation and the area has seen an influx of residential contractors for years. “I think it shows that we’re doing those types of projects,” Blaha said.
The county’s travel policy states that a conference brochure be provided indicating where the conference is being held and suggested hotels that could be booked. Stanley produced no documentation, according to its records.
Michael Arnold, the county’s human resource director, said the brochures can be helpful in properly accounting for an employee’s true expenses during travel. For instance, lunch or other meals may be provided at a conference. Stanley’s pre-travel form shows that his per diem for food amounted to $320, the maximum for his length of stay.
The county’s travel policy also requires that employees choose “the most economical ... lodging.”
Public work employees stayed this year at Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel and Casino for $123 per night, compared to the Bellagio’s $249 rate.
Arnold said the public purpose of the travel is suspect if the county didn’t truly receive an award.
“Without knowing more about it, it would be hard to say,” he said. “But that would raise a red flag to me, too.”