Western Westmoreland Authority Spent $63K on Conferences

Article excerpt

Board members and employees of the Western Westmoreland Municipal Authority exceeded budgeted conference costs by more than $50,000 during a period when rates rose by 67 percent.

One year, the authority racked up $63,000 in expenses for its members, employees and some spouses to go to conferences, stay at hotels and dine in restaurants -- with ratepayers picking up the tab.

Last year, amid a State Ethics Commission investigation of former treasurer Robert Eathorne, seminar spending at the authority plunged to $7,814.43. That was about half of the $15,000 that had been budgeted.

Eathorne, 70, of Manor is appealing a state order to pay a $64,475 penalty. That's three times the amount he allegedly overbilled the authority by authorizing and collecting advances for conferences he didn't attend, using public money to cover his wife's expenses at conferences, and claiming bogus expenses with manufactured meal receipts, according to the commission.

While a 113-page report made public last week identifies other current and former board members and employees who turned in expenses involving spouses, it doesn't specify whether others might face penalties.

Robert Caruso, the commission's deputy executive director, would not say whether the ethics investigation into the authority has ended.

But some board members said an October revision of its travel policy to eliminate a conference advance of as much as $2,500 for expenses is a step toward accountability.

Caruso said Eathorne's penalty "is among the higher" amounts ordered by the commission in recent years.

"Some people feel they're entitled to use this type of money for these types of trips because they're not paid to be on the board," said Manor Borough Council President Chuck Konkus, whom the borough appointed last year to succeed Eathorne as its representative.

Compensation is an ongoing issue for the municipal authority.

In 1992, the State Ethics Commission ordered two board members to repay thousands of dollars in salaries they earned when the authority "sidestepped" a state law regulating the pay of authority members by naming each an officer and setting a monthly rate.

The next year, Commonwealth Court overruled the commission, deciding the members could keep the money.

Longtime board member Dan Hall said interest in most junkets might stop if the municipality that appoints a board member pays him for his time.

"If these (member) communities are serious about stopping this kind of thing in the long run, they're going to have to think about compensation," said Hall, an engineer from Penn Township.

Eathorne billed the authority for 30 conferences, conventions and workshops between 2001 and 2006, bypassing workshops at an Atlanta convention to hit casinos in Biloxi, Miss., and ignoring work at one conference to go on a $70 tour of Famous Homes of Chicago, the commission alleges.

Eathorne allegedly once charged ratepayers $21.75 for an ESPN Zone hat, disguised as a meal expense with a paper from a pad of generic receipts that showed no vendors, according to the commission. In Atlanta and Chicago, he merely toured the exhibit halls, the commission alleges. …