Richmond spokesperson suspends city-issued credit cards

The city-issued shopping card owned by City of Richmond spokesperson Petula Burks has been suspended for nearly a year after she failed to clear a backlog of charges and accidentally used the card to pay for personal expenses. With files from the Richmond Times-Dispatch program.

Burks, who heads the city's Office of Strategic Communications, made 130 purchases between Jan. 5 and July 20, 2023, with a total value of $277,151.99, according to her shopping card transaction logs. Those expenses include more than $71,000 for consulting and public relations services, approximately $50,000 for photography and video studio fees, more than $42,000 for restaurant and catering expenses and approximately $1,600 for stays at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas , she represented the city at the International Council of Shopping Centers Customs.

Richmond’s Purchasing Card Program allows approved officials to use city-issued credit cards to make certain business-related purchases. Burks' purchasing card was one of at least three suspended last year. After multiple conversations with city officials, it remains unclear how many shopping cards have been suspended or suspended.

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Burks said the frequency and volume of her purchasing card charges were a result of her role, which often involved planning large, last-minute events and required her to use her purchasing card to compensate vendors “in a timely manner.” But transaction logs show that after July 20, purchases made with the card suddenly stopped.

Officials with the Richmond Procurement Services Department said that's because Burks' card was disabled for a late payment.

“We've made multiple attempts to work with Burks to resolve some of the past-due payment issues,” said Rene Almaraz, director of Richmond's Procurement Services Department, which oversees the Procurement Card program. He added that unpaid balances will “fluctuate” as some charges are disputed and cleared while others are settled.

“People are busy, understandably,” Almaraz said. “(Burks) has a lot written on her personal card. She's working on it,[but]it's going to take a while to catch up on her ability, so it's on hold.

Almaraz said one of the marked payments was a personal expense that Burks inadvertently charged to her shopping card instead of her personal credit card. He said Burks had brought the allegation to the attention of officials, was working to reverse the situation and had refunded the money to the city.

Now, 11 months after being cut off, Burks' purchase card still hasn't been activated.

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Almaraz said the pause on card purchases is neither indefinite nor permanent and will resume once Burks clears the remaining backlog that existed a month ago.

“I don't know her payment status,” he said. “We will look at … if there are any other outstanding amounts that need to be paid immediately. We are going back and looking at what we can do to get those things open again.

Purchasing card program policies reviewed by The Times indicate that the penalty for “failure to complete, sign or approve by a specified date” is a written warning, while the penalty for “unintentional personal purchases” is a suspension of up to 30 days for the first violation. The non-payment was not specifically identified as a violation.

A 2019 audit of the purchasing card program cited “untimely bill payments” as a problem and said past-due balances caused financial losses because they disqualified the city from receiving rebates from Bank of America.

“We recommended that the Director of Procurement Services develop and implement a process to ensure timely payment of P-Card bills,” auditors said at the time.

Officials raise Berks' credit limit

The purchasing card policy stipulates that the general single transaction limit is US$5,000 and the monthly consumption limit is US$10,000. Transaction logs show that between January and July 2023, Burks exceeded the usual single transaction limit 20 times and exceeded the monthly limit each month during that period, charging an average of $39,593.14 per month.

Almaraz explained that Burks' credit limit was increased at her request, but said he had “no idea” what the individual transaction and monthly limits were that Burks increased.

Birx told The Times her monthly limit has been set at $50,000, citing her position as a factor in the increased spending. She said she was often tasked with “turnaround events within 24 hours” and dealing with vendors who “required immediate payment.”

But Burks even exceeded the increased limit twice, spending $61,168.02 in January 2023 and $56,925.38 in May 2023, according to transaction logs.

UPDATE: Officials suspend registrar's city credit card after $70,000 in 2023 charges

Expenses for January and May 2023 were mainly classified in the transaction log as “Management, Consulting and Public Relations” or “Catering Venues, Restaurants”.

When asked about expenses during those months, Birx said, “At times, temporary increases in limits are deemed appropriate to help cover immediate expenses.”

“January (and) … May are the busiest months in the city,” Burks said. “Working with many small businesses, the service provided by being able to send money quickly is critical.”

Purchasing card policies include a maintenance request form completed by the cardholder to request a credit limit increase. Asked whether Birx filled out the form, Almaraz said he would “look into the matter.”

In total, cardholders spent nearly $12 million last year

The procurement card program is not a stand-alone, annually funded program and the balance of each procurement card is paid out of the budget of its respective department or office, officials said.

There are currently 336 city employees with purchasing cards, according to a list provided by officials. In 2023, cardholders collected a total of $11,909,228.86, but the money was distributed among all city departments and offices.

Burks' position is part of the Office of Strategic Communications. The city's 2023 operating budget allocates $885,179 for the office, city budget records show. But the office's expenses totaled $1,230,140, ​​39 percent over budget.

Transaction logs show that in 2023, Burks used the card to make $42,431.05 worth of purchases, which were classified as “catering establishments,” “bakeries,” “eating establishments, restaurants,” or “fast food restaurants.” Many of the larger charges “are related to citywide or community activities, whether internal or external,” Birx said.

2019 City Review of Richmond Procurement Card Program

In the 2019 audit, city auditors noted that the purchasing card policy allowed for “permitted food purchases” that were “directly related to normal business,” but noted that neither “permitted food purchases” nor “normal business” were consistent with Regulation.

“We recommend that the Director of Procurement Services clearly define what is allowed for… food purchases,” auditors said at the time. Yet five years later, officials confirm the terms remain undefined.

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Instead, Almaraz said cardholders must seek food purchase approval before purchasing food and submit a form summarizing the business purpose of the purchase and the participants in the meal. When asked for copies of Berks' food purchase forms, city officials said they would work to turn them over.

Other recently suspended shopping cards

The Times began investigating the use of procurement cards after reporting that the accounts of General Registrar Keith Balmer and Deputy Registrar Jerry Richardson had been suspended.

Documents show deputy registrar charged city credit card nearly $80,000

Balmer's purchasing card was suspended in May after he accrued nearly $70,000 worth of expenses in 2023, including nearly $15,000 for furniture, $8,903 for local art vendors, about $6,500 for hotels and Accommodation and more than $6,000 in food and beverage expenses. Richardson's card was also suspended and she outspent her boss, charging nearly $80,000 to her shopping card and using it to buy guns and ammunition.

The Richmond Office of Inspector General is investigating allegations of nepotism and financial misconduct against Balmer and Richardson.

Almaraz said the procurement card program is currently being reviewed as part of the city's regular monitoring of its program. Almaraz said the audit was unrelated to the recent suspension.

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