A snapshot of years-old travel records for the Mobile City Council confirms the long-rumored suspicion that District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson is the most routine traveler of the group, taking an average of four-and-a-half trips per year on the city’s behalf.
Richardson has been on a total 83 trips approved by the City Council since he was first elected in 1997. On 16 trips he took between 2005-2008 for which Lagniappe was provided expenditures records, he spent an average of $1,744.86 per trip, for a total of $27,917.77 in the three-year period.
Richardson’s overall spending on travel was also highest among the council during the same period; $3,874 more than the second-place spender, then-Councilman Clinton Johnson and $25,116 more than then-Councilman Reggie Copeland, who spent the least on travel.
While many of the trips are domestic and chalked up as professional or educational training, Richardson has also been a globetrotter for goodwill and trade missions. In his 17 years on the City Council, Richardson has had his passport stamped in at least 16 foreign countries, several more than once.
He went to China twice in 1998, the same year he also attended a Chamber of Commerce trade mission to Costa Rica and Chile. The following year, he was off to Europe to attend the Farnborough International Airshow, a trip he has also taken four times since. He’s visited Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, Honduras, Japan, Poland, Italy, India, France, Turkey, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Domestically, he’s been to the state and national capital several times, but also to Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, Nevada, Massachusetts, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Texas, Indiana, Utah, Washington, South Carolina, Virginia and Missouri.
The only year he stayed close to home was in 2012, when council President Gina Gregory said there was a budget crunch and travel ban.
Design by Laura Rasmussen / Lagniappe
Richardson declined to talk to Lagniappe for this story, but it is not the first time his travel has come under scrutiny. In 2001, Copeland and Councilwoman Bess Rich questioned the significance of having a council representative on foreign trade missions. But then-President Johnson rejected a proposal to review the approval process and today, it remains the same.
At the time, Richardson told the Press-Register he was “not surprised” he had accumulated the most travel on the council, explaining he was “typically the only minority on the trips, so I play more than one role.”
During her own campaign for District 1 in 2009, challenger Yasmin Coker took Richardson to task for his taxpayer-funded travel. In his autobiography, “From Nymph to Mobile and Beyond,” Richardson notes that Coker “campaigned against me traveling to bring foreign investors to our city, only to watch in a declining economy, those foreign investors who kept the city afloat … In the end, the people saw, for sure, that my challenger had absolutely no experience in facing global competitors, negotiating for jobs for our citizens or standing up for those ill-equipped to stand up for themselves. It probably accounted for her wrangling discourse about and against my travel on foreign economic development trade missions. I too would be against travel if I was expected to be sent to distant nations to face international giants on a global stage, to negotiate for jobs for citizens of our great city, and if I had not a clue as to what to do or say. No, I don’t think, under those conditions, I would endorse foreign travel.”
Richardson further recounts how before he joined the council, “it was a rare occasion for Council Members to travel abroad.”
Yet, he apparently asked then-Mayor Mike Dow if he could accompany him on “trade missions around the world” and Dow consented. He’s been at it ever since.
“As time went on and new Council Members were elected who didn’t have clue about recruiting business and industry to our city, the issue of Fred Richardson traveling with Mayor Mike Dow was raised. They questioned the value of that …” he wrote. “I can say for certain that on those missions, among the 25 to 30 members who made up the trade delegations, [Clinton Johnson and I] were the only ones of color.”
But in an interview last week, Council President Gina Gregory downplayed the role of the City Council in recruiting business, and said while the council president is still responsible for approving travel, the council no longer has a line item in its budget for travel-related expenses.
“In past years when I was first on the council, there was money set aside for travel, but it changed over the years,” she said. “We were so low on funds we had to cut back and eventually we didn’t put any money at all in the budget for travel.”
Gregory explained that recently, any authorized travel has been paid for out of the $25,000 in discretionary funds each councilperson is entitled to annually. Discretionary funds are not limited to capital expenses, she explained, but are generally reserved for minor improvements or sponsorships within a councilperson’s district.
The City Council was awarded a total of $457,791 in its amended 2014 budget.
Regarding the purpose of approved travel, Gregory said it is primarily “education-based,” although there has been a recent emphasis on recruitment of suppliers for the Airbus assembly line. But generally, she said, council members are “not much in any way” involved with job recruitment, an ongoing task typically assigned to the mayor’s office and the Chamber of Commerce.
Some members of the council recently took a trip to St. Louis and still others are scheduled to attend the Farnborough International Airshow later this month.
In the past, several of Richardson’s foreign trips have also been related to the Sister Cities International program. Particularly, trips to Ichihara and Tokyo Japan in 2004 and 2008, a 2005 European tour, and a 10-day stay in Perth, Cockburn and Sydney, Australia in October 2008. In the latter trip, Richardson and then-Councilwoman Connie Hudson racked up a combined $8,041.31 in expenses not related to hotel, airfare, food or transportation.
According to the records supplied by the city clerk’s office, Richardson and Hudson’s miscellaneous expenses in Australia were “charges for shipping and purchase of gifts for officials.”
Lagniappe has requested additional specifics on the expenditure, but in the meantime, Richardson explained only, “I didn’t do the shipping. Connie did the shipping.”
Hudson, who currently chairs the Mobile County Commission, initially said through her spokesperson Nancy Johnson that she thought the number was a clerical error and the only thing that was shipped back or forth for the trip was “maybe $100 worth of books.”
Later, Hudson admitted she and Richardson were also given a didgeridoo, a boomerang and other small gifts from the Australians, but suggested Ann Rambeau of the city’s Neighborhood and Community Services department may have more information about the larger expense.
Rambeau, whose office administers the Sister Cities program, later said she “had no knowledge of that expense,” adding that in 2008, she ordered picture frames, writing pens and umbrellas for the Australian cultural exchange while the mayor’s office bought books, clocks and paperweights for the program, but she couldn’t recall the dates they were purchased.
Someone more familiar with the trip who wished to remain off-the-record said the didgeridoo, a wind instrument native to the Aborigine people of Australia, was “12, 13, 14 feet long … it was huge and wooden, it looked like a monstrous pipe.”
Hudson later said the instrument was shipped separately and may have been donated to the History Museum of Mobile. A person familiar with the museum’s collection has yet to confirm the donation. City Clerk Lisa Lambert said specific records related to the shipping expense were destroyed late last year in accordance with state law.
After this story was originally published, Hudson wanted to clarify that, “I am not responsible for that expense. I don’t know where it originated, or with whom, or why it was put on my travel expense line item. I have never seen it before. Nor did I send back any of the gifts that were presented to the city of Mobile. I am troubled that these records have been destroyed by the city clerk’s office.”
Gregory said “miscellaneous” expenses usually cover parking, tipping, or other small cash-based transactions. In a related situation, previously, each councilor held a city-issued credit card he or she could use for travel expenses but reportedly, former Mayor Sam Jones asked the council to turn them in and check them out on an as-needed basis. According to people familiar with the city’s finances, all the councilors agreed to Jones’ request except Richardson, who today remains the only councilperson to carry a city-issued credit card.
When asked why he kept the city’s credit card on his person, rather than turning it in to the finance department like other councilors, Richardson said, “I’m a leader not a follower. I’m one of eight custodians for the city and the mayor has a credit card also.
“If I’m going to Montgomery and a tire blows out I want to be able to give them my card and go and not worry about it,” he said.
The Australia expenses mirror a 2009 Lagniappe report specifically examining spending related to Sister Cities program, one that found in the years 2004-2008, the council spent $30,932.88 on four Sister Cities trips.
Mobile doesn’t appear to be the only municipality under the media’s microscope.
A column published on al.com last month indicated that the city of Birmingham has allocated more than $200,000 on travel expenses for its mayor and City Council in 2014. The same report suggested Hoover budgeted $7,500 for travel this year but hasn’t spent any money, while Huntsville budgeted $42,250 for city council and administration travel and Montgomery typically spends about $16,000 per year on travel.
The incomplete records obtained by Lagniappe indicate the City Council spent a total of $105,023 on travel between 2005-2008, for an average of more than $35,000 per year.
Meanwhile, obtaining the records has been somewhat of a challenge in its own right. In two separate public venues over the past month, Richardson has complained about this newspaper’s public records request, while effectively presiding over the office responsible for fulfilling it.
Lagniappe initially made the request June 3 and it was partially granted the same day. In fact, the City Clerk’s office went above and beyond the request for Richardson’s records and provided those of the entire council, along with expenses related to travel for trips authorized between 2004-2008. The records were received along with a note reading, “Tomorrow I’ll get you a list of the rest.”
Richardson defiantly mentioned the request during a council meeting June 24 and later on Facebook, and on June 25 the initial request was finally met. Other, related requests are still pending.
Gregory explained that the clerk’s office has an antiquated system of maintaining the travel records and some may take a “great deal of time” to compile. In a similar request made to the Mobile County Commission June 19, Nancy Johnson immediately responded that it would take “a fair amount of time and manpower” to compile the records, but also indicated that upon receipt of an official request form, she would promptly “get it going.”
According to the Sister Cities story published in 2009, Lagniappe waited approximately six weeks to obtain travel records.
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.
Edited to include an additional statement from Connie Hudson.