COMMERCE — The political season had just begun last February when the coffers of this tiny industrial city received some money from unusual sources--two councilmen handed over personal checks totaling $3,612.
The money was received only a few days after Ruth R. Aldaco filed as a candidate for the council and immediately requested copies of council expense reports, hoping that they might contain an issue she could take on the campaign trail.
Between the time Aldaco sought the forms and the time she received them four weeks later, however, Mayor Pro Tem Robert J. Cornejo and Councilman Lawrence Maese refunded several expenses that they had billed to taxpayers nine months before.
From Cornejo, back came $398 used to fly his wife, Sandra, to Hawaii, where she accompanied him to a conference last May. Back, too, came $56 that covered her air fare around the islands, and $298 to fly in June with her husband on a city-organized cultural excursion to Washington. In all, the mayor pro tem returned $752.
Likewise from Maese, back came $56 that he had used to fly his wife, Lucy, around Hawaii, and $298 for her fare for the June trip to Washington .
But Maese--himself a candidate up for election April 8--didn't stop there, city records show. In all, the appointed councilman returned $2,860, including:
- $885 in other expense money advanced for the Hawaii trip.
- $1,071 for personal bills charged on a city credit card.
- $550 for expenses at a conference last April in Montreal, where Maese charged $534 in purchases at a women's shop called Alouette Lingerie Inc.
"I don't think $500 worth of lingerie is city business, do you?" Aldaco said to a reporter recently, after defeating Maese at the polls and disclosing the expense reports, which raise a variety of questions about the way Commerce officials use tax money to travel and entertain in the name of better government.
The reports show that council members spent $30,664 last year, which--when figured per capita--is more than 2 1/2 times the amounts recorded in half a dozen other Southeast cities. For example, Commerce council members spent $2.58 for each of the city's 11,884 residents, while their counterparts in Norwalk--where spiraling expenses became a heated election issue--spent 98 cents. That city spent $87,019 on council expenses, but has 89,113 residents.
City Administrator Edward Oliva said per capita comparisons don't necessarily account for the uniqueness of Commerce, a city dominated by commuters who work there by day but reside elsewhere. "We have that base of 12,000 (residents)," Oliva said, "but we operate on the basis of 60,000" with a budget of $16 million.
In addition, Cornejo said that council expenses last year were greater than usual partly due to festivities planned around the city's 25th birthday. The $14,913 spent in 1983-84 also was a substantial $1.27 per resident when compared to other Southeast cities.
In recent interviews, Cornejo and Maese acknowledged making the personal charges and eventually paying the money back, although not because Aldaco was on the verge of obtaining their records. Both men said they never intended to have taxpayers foot the bill.
And they emphasized that council spending habits--which last year financed a dozen trips around the state, as well as into Mexico and Canada, plus more than 200 breakfasts, lunches and dinners where the public's business was ostensibly discussed--are not only proper but also in line with the type of expenses incurred by other cities.
'A Routine Matter'
Cornejo said he "had forgotten all about" his wife's expenses until finance officials reminded him of them in February. "There was some delay in the billing," he said, describing his repayment as "a routine matter."
And Maese explained his purchases at Alouette Lingerie.
"I bought my wife some dresses, and my daughters, and a few items for gifts," the former councilman said. "I bought one shirt. . . . It was a Hawaiian shirt. . . . My wife saw it and wanted to buy it for me. I bought about $700, $800, $900 worth of dresses for them."
Shortly before the Montreal trip, Maese explained, he told Finance Director John Mitsuuchi that "I didn't want to carry that much money." So he said Mitsuuchi agreed to let him charge the expenses on a city credit card with the understanding that "when I came back they (would) bill me for it."
Maese blamed finance officials for not calling his attention to the expenses months ago.
"I'm not so dumb that I'm going to charge the city for clothes I bought my wife," Maese said. "That's stupid."
'Flagged' by Auditors
Mitsuuchi conceded that he was aware of the personal bills, but had put off asking the councilmen to settle up even after the charges were "flagged" by independent auditors last December.