Taxpayers in Houston paid for luxurious trinkets as city council members sought to use every penny of their “office holder” accounts rather than put the money back in the city’s general fund. The Houston Chronicle found thousands of dollars were spent on clothing, furniture and overnight “retreats” in Galveston. This may not be waste, fraud and abuse at its worst, but its close. For example, councilmember Melissa Noriega, wife of Democratic Senate nominee Rick Noriega hit the trifecta of waste: outfitting her office with new flat-screen TVs, expensive furniture and self-promoting polo shirts.
Under the city’s rules, city council members have nearly $400,000 each year to spend as they see fit. Monies not spent are shifted back to the city coffers. The result? Wild spending sprees with the taxpayers’ money.
Not all council members went hog-wild. One diverted left-over funds to the parks department, while another used his leftover money buy new saddles for the HPD’s mounted division.
One city councilmember, Michael Sullivan (no relation), bought TVs for his office with his own money. “I just wanted to spend my personal money for that, not taxpayer money,” he said. He used his left-over office account to buy saws for the fire stations in his district.
But not Melissa Noriega. In what is perhaps a sign of her family’s view of the public purse, she bought new televisions for herself, her chief of staff and then three more the staff “commons” area. All so they can watch the riveting Houston council meetings. How Melissa manages to watch the council meeting in her office while being in the council meeting isn’t addressed.
Noriega’s wasteful ways didn’t stop with televisions. She also bought $1,400 worth of clothing that bear her name and the city logo. Her defense? “You can show up at a meeting, and people might not know you.” So the shirts help identify her staff as city officials.
She didn’t stop there. She also spent nearly $3,700 on a new desk.
Other council members took their staff on overnight retreats to Galveston — complete with a $500-per-night suite.
Come to think of it, maybe this is one of the worst examples of waste, fraud and abuse…
One would hope that elected officials would be willing to put money back in the general coffers. The current safeguards against such abuse are meaningless; one city councilman justified a $7,000 staff retreat to a posh hotel as being approved by the city’s finance department.
Sure, they’ll tell their boss no.
This story came to light only because of the Houston Chronicle’s digging. Local officials across the state get away with this because they gamble no one will ever know. If all city checkbooks and expenditures were posted online, in real time, this abuse would be brought to a halt.