Questions Swirl Around Water District Director’s Expense Reports

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Thursday, August 19, 2010 | Orange City Councilman Denis Bilodeau, who also is a director of the Orange County Water District, billed the water agency nearly $3,500 for meetings he either didn’t attend or that didn’t occur, according to official Water District records.

Bilodeau emphatically denies receiving any money that was not due him and said the questionable billings have come to light because of a political vendetta by Carol Rudat, whom he defeated in a 2006 race for a seat on the Orange City Council.

“I have not been compensated for something I was not entitled to. Period,” he said.

Water District minutes and expense reports show that between June 2001 and November 2007, Bilodeau billed the district $3,070.16 for 17 meetings for which official minutes show him absent. And, records show, he claimed another $382.04 in stipends for two meetings that never occurred.

When asked by Voice of OC about these meetings, Bilodeau said that he does not keep his own records of attendance and that if mistakes were made, they were the fault of Water District staffers.

“I don’t fill them [expense reports] out on my own,” he said. “I’m not capable of doing it” because he doesn’t keep a calendar of the meetings he attends.

Later he said: “I fill out an expense report in three minutes.” He added that the records showed only a “handful of discrepancies.”

Eleanor Torres, the Water District’s public affairs director, stated in an email that the official minutes and signed expense reports, the only records the public has ready access to, aren’t necessarily accurate.

In her email, Torres said that even if official minutes show a director was absent, his or her attendance can be confirmed verbally by other directors or staff members without there being a public record.

Torres and Bilodeau acknowledged that Water District officials have found discrepencies in director expense reports in the past, and in late 2009 the agency reviewed how minutes and expense reports were kept.

That informal review, Torres asserts, showed a “99 percent accuracy rate” when it comes to paying expenses. Bilodeau said the accuracy rate was “99.8 percent.” As a result of the review, the agency made changes last year in how minutes are taken.

A Review of Records

The Orange County Water District provides drinking water to about 2.3 million people in 23 North Orange County cities and water agencies. It is separate from and independent of county government.

In addition to his posts at the Water District and in Orange, Bilodeau is chief of staff for newly elected Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson. Before that, he was on the staff of Nelson’s predecessor, Chris Norby, who is now a member of the state Assembly.

Bilodeau has been a Water District director since 2000 and said he has attended 1,400 meetings in the past nine years and eight months, which averages out to 12 meetings a month, although he and other directors are compensated for a maximum of 10 meetings a month under Water District policies.

Water District directors are paid a stipend for every meeting they attend, up to the 10-meeting limit, and are reimbursed for mileage at the per-mile rate set by the federal government.

Directors sign their expense reports under penalty of perjury.

The official expense records also are reviewed for accuracy by a staff person and given final approval by the district’s general manager, both of whom also sign the reports.

Bilodeau blamed Water District staffers for failing to accurately account for meetings he attended and for improperly filling in the amounts due on the questioned expense reports.

And while Bilodeau said he often is late for meetings, he denied ever being absent from those for which he was paid a stipend. Again, he blamed Water District staffers for not noticing and not correcting the attendance record when he came in late.

He said that although he was marked as absent, the minutes of these meetings would show he was present through comments and motions he made. But Voice of OC found only one instance in which Bilodeau’s name was mentioned in the minutes of a meeting at which he was marked absent.

However, the late arrivals of other directors were noted in the minutes of some meetings for which Bilodeau claimed expenses but was marked absent.

At each meeting, Water District directors — like those of any public body — have the opportunity to correct any innacuracies in the minutes of a previous meeting. Among the records Voice of OC examined, there is no evidence of Bilodeau doing that.

But there is evidence of him approving official minutes that show he was absent at a March 2007 committee meeting for which he claimed the $210.60 stipend.

When members were asked at the April meeting to approve the March minutes, Bilodeau offered to second the motion, according to district records. That means he voted to approve as accurate the March minutes, which showed he was absent.

Additionally, Bilodeau blamed calendar software on his BlackBerry and an earlier Palm for preventing him from keeping track, even today, of his own meetings.

Voice of OC scheduled an interview with Water District General Manager Michael R. Markus and two staff members to discuss district practices in filling out expense reports for directors and systems for handling minutes.

But Torres cancelled that interview and said she would not reschedule unless Voice of OC reporters first gave her a list of all documents that might be discussed. Voice of OC refused to abide by that precondition.

Political Battles

Most of the meetings for which Bilodeau has expense discrepancies came in 2006, the year he began a political smack down with Rudat and her husband, former Orange City Manager Dave Rudat.

That election-year battle, with Bilodeau ultimately beating Carol Rudat for a City Council seat, was particularly ugly. Nine days before the election, Rudat’s daughter videotaped Bilodeau stealing a campaign sign.

The day before the Nov. 7 election, according to the Orange County Register, the district attorney’s office announced it would file misdemeanor charges against Bilodeau. Those charges were formally dismissed a year later.

“That whole thing she (Rudat) put me through was probably the most traumatic thing of my life,” Bilodeau said.

He and Gina DePinto, a Water District spokesperson, blamed Rudat for sending news organizations, including Voice of OC, documents that raised questions about Bilodeau’s expenses.

“Based on where we’ve been with that story,” DePinto said Monday, “I don’t believe there is one.”

Documents received by Voice of OC were sent anonymously. Reporters checked the delivered records against the Water District’s official records to make sure they matched. Reporters also checked additional records.

Water District records show that in 2006 Bilodeau claimed $1,805.13 in expenses for nine meetings he didn’t attend. He called it a terrible year.

“Do you know how many court appearances I had to make that year?” he said, referring to the campaign sign incident.

But according to the Water District’s records, eight of the nine meetings Bilodeau claimed expenses for and apparently did not attend took place well before the sign incident. Only one, a Nov. 15 Board of Directors meeting, occurred after the district attorney announced that Bilodeau would face charges.

In other cases, however, Bilodeau insisted that staff members who recorded attendance simply didn’t see him when he came in late. And on at least three occasions, he said, he came in so late that the meeting had recessed to a closed session by the time he arrived, and staffers probably weren’t there to see him.

Bilodeau acknowledged that he signed expense reports wrongly seeking reimbursement for mileage two or three times when he actually attended meetings by telephone. He said he wrote a check for $47.51 to the Water District in February to cover the mileage overpayment.

The erroneous mileage, he said, was mistakenly put on his expense reimbursement forms by a Water District staff member, after he signed them.

Overall, he said, “the [Water District] clerks could have done a better job, but I’m not here to throw them under the bus.”

And regardless, Bilodeau, who is a multi-millionaire according to his financial disclosure reports, insists that the Water District is ahead of the game when it comes to his expenses.

“I’ve eaten tens of thousands of dollars [of unreimbursed expenses] at the Orange County Water District,” he said.

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