Local News

Fired Wake official: Trips were approved

Posted June 24, 2008 8:25 a.m. EDT
Updated June 25, 2008 1:07 a.m. EDT

— A Wake County administrator who was fired after an internal review showed questionable travel expenses said Tuesday that county officials approved all of his trips.

Craig P. Wittig, the recycling program manager for the county's Solid Waste Management Division, took at least 46 trips between his hiring in February 2006 and his termination on June 3.

"The travel was a direct effort to gain insight into those (recycling) programs," Wittig said.

The trips included whale-watching off the coast of Maine, four ventures to Disney World and a trip to Las Vegas. County records show he traveled two to three times a month, sometimes with his family and often with other county employees. One trip to Disney and the Maine trip also included a group of Wake County teachers who are on a recycling advisory board.

"A lot of those trips are inappropriate. The amount of trips was inappropriate. Some of the charges were inappropriate," County Manager David Cooke said.

Wittig said one of his trips to Disney World was to attend a nearby composting conference. Disney has green-certified resorts and Wake County was trying to forge a relationship with the Disney Co., he said, and the trip included a teacher workshop with environmental teachers interacting with Disney educators.

He said he was hired to build a state-of-the-art recycling program for the county, and his work will save the county about $280,000 next year because his travels helped him find a different electronics recycling vendor for the county.

"I believe I worked in the best interests of Wake County," he said.

Seven employees in the Solid Waste Management Division, including Wittig, charged $165,165 to credit cards issued by Wake County – they are paid for with public money – between April 2006 and this week, according to county records. Officials are trying to determine how much of that amount was for travel and how much of the travel was questionable.

"I budgeted for and submitted a spreadsheet that listed the trips that I was going to take," Wittig said. "The budget process accounted for what travel costs would be spent."

Cooke agreed that the spending had been approved and said the trips should have been questioned more upfront.

"Your first line of defense or internal control is your supervisor," he said.

County records show Wittig's boss, Solid Waste Management Director James S. Reynolds, was demoted last month to the position of solid waste facilities manager. He remains on the county payroll, earning $85,000 annually, which is about $10,000 less than his previous salary.

Cooke said the case remains under investigation, noting five other employees also went on some of the trips. He declined to say whether other disciplinary actions were expected.

All other Wake County departments have been instructed to review travel expenses for possible questionable spending, he said.

The county has issued charge cards to 535 of its more than 3,800 employees. In the past 11 months, more than $5.7 million was charged to those cards.

"I'm sure every commissioner wants to assure the public that this will not be tolerated," said Joe Bryan, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners will work to improve how employee expenses are monitored, Bryan said.

Cooke said the county cannot afford to waste money in tight economic times.

County commissioners last week approved a 2.5-cent increase to the tax rate to fund a $984.4 million budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Commissioners said the extra property tax revenue was needed to pay off bonds and expand law enforcement efforts, and they also limited the budget increase for area public schools.