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February 27, 2012 at 11:17 AM

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Audit confirms improper Port charges

The State Auditor's Office confirmed Monday what the Times and a Port of Seattle investigator reported back in October: Port commissioners, particularly Rob Holland, misused Port credit cards for $2,990 in improper charges.

In a routine accountability audit, state auditors said the improper charges -- mostly travel-related in 2010 and last year -- were all reimbursed. But the charges still violated state law and Port policies. Commissioners have said they didn't believe they were breaking rules when they charged meals, drinks, flights and other personal expenses to their Port credit cards.

Of 52 questionable charges, Holland racked up 38 totaling $1,209. Gael Tarleton had three for $841, John Creighton, 8 for $748, Tom Albro, 2 for $103, and Bill Bryant, 1 for $88.

One problem, according to auditors, is that no one is responsible for enforcing Port policies with commissioners. "Port Commissioners set the tone for the organization. Enforcement of expense policies becomes more difficult when Commissioners violate the policies," they wrote.

In its written response to the audit, Port officials noted that Port internal controls flagged the questionable expenses last year, leading Commissioners to hire investigator Susan Coskey. Released by the Port in October, Coskey's findings mirror the state auditor's.

A revision to Port policies, which clarifies some circumstances -- such as how to handle expenses when a commissioner combines Port business travel with personal travel -- is near completion, according to the Port.

Auditors reported two other problems at the Port.

They found the Port spent $13.6 million in taxpayer funds to help renovate and operate Aviation High School when most of that money was supposed to be spent on noise mitigation for Highline schools, which are close to Sea-Tac International Airport. The Port is not authorized to spend money on school construction and operation, according to auditors.

In their response, Port officials said they have a "vested interest" in the overall health of Aviation High -- a college-prep, aviation-themed school: "Men and women trained for careers in aviation, maritime industry and skilled trades are crucial to the future of the Port."

Lastly, auditors said Port employees worked on $4.7 million on public works projects in 2010 that have might been done more inexpensively by contractors.

Port officials said they believed they fully complied with state law and accounted for factors such as in-house knowledge when they used Port employees instead of contractors.

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