Lawry's, Stacey's overlapping trips under fire - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:43 am
Lawry's, Stacey's overlapping trips under fire

Click here to see details of their overlapping travels.

Click the links below to see the following documents:
State Auditor's report on Gretna spending
Bellevue Police Department corporate card
John Stacey's travel and training requests, May 2011 through May2012
John Stacey's travel expenses, May 2011 through May 2012

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The fired Gretna city administrator and Bellevue's police chief took trips that overlapped in four cities around the country, racking up thousands of dollars in bills charged to taxpayers.

The World-Herald reviewed travel and expense records for the Cities of Gretna and Bellevue, finding that former City Administrator Colleen Lawry and Police Chief John Stacey charged at least $5,000 to their employers for trips taken over a six-month period.

Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said Monday that any overlap involving out-of-state travel between Stacey and Lawry using public funds deserved further investigation by law enforcement officials, who are already investigating Lawry.

Polikov said the Sheriff's Office has reached out to accounting experts for help in the continuing investigation.

“We need to analyze the airline travel and cross-reference the travel for both of them,” Polikov said. “We need to see if there is any misuse of city resources for this relationship.”

Gretna City Attorney John Green said Gretna officials are reviewing information regarding travel by Lawry and Stacey, and have talked with the Sarpy County Attorney's Office.

Green said the city has seen enough that it will withhold what was paid for those trips from Lawry's severance unless she can justify their purpose.

Green said Lawry's trips ostensibly were related to Gretna's hopes of redeveloping the Nebraska Crossing outlet mall.

“If they were solely to pursue a relationship, we will pursue that,” Green said.

Last week, Lawry and Stacey each entered the spotlight for their professional troubles. Lawry was fired from the City of Gretna and charged with a felony on suspicion of taking money from a Gretna senior citizens fund.

Stacey was placed on administrative leave, according to a source, after he allegedly made an inappropriate remark to someone at the Bellevue Fire Department.

State Auditor Mike Foley, whose report took Gretna to task for its lax spending oversight, said Monday that it would cross the line for a public official to take a taxpayer-funded trip deliberately for personal reasons.

Still, he said, “I cannot prove either one of them did anything inappropriate, knowing what I know now.”

Said Foley: “We do care, however, if a friendship is influencing an improper expenditure of funds. Then it would become of interest to our office.”

Attempts to reach Stacey and Lawry were unsuccessful.

Stacey is married. Lawry filed for divorce in December.

Bellevue City Administrator Dan Berlowitz said he doesn't plan to interview Stacey about his travel “unless it's warranted.”

Bellevue has reviewed all of Stacey's out-of-state travel, Berlowitz said. All the conferences representing the Police and Fire Departments appeared legitimate, and none of Stacey's city expenses appeared out of line, Berlowitz said.

“Nothing we have shows anything inappropriate or invalid,” he said. “All were legitimate conferences and expenses.”

Berlowitz said what Stacey did in his off time after attending conferences was his own business, “as long as it was not illegal.”

“We don't have anything showing there was a violation or something that is a personnel matter,” Berlowitz said.

The four overlapping trips occurred between August and January, according to a comparison of the state auditor's report and financial records for the Cities of Bellevue and Gretna.

Stacey, a former Bellevue fire chief who continues working with the department, traveled to Atlanta in late August for an International Association of Fire Chiefs meeting, City of Bellevue records show. He paid his own bill at a Hilton Garden Inn, the records show, but charged other costs.

Lawry traveled to Atlanta over many of the same days for economic development research on outlet malls, charging expenses at a Hilton Garden Inn, according to the account given to the State Auditor's Office.

Stacey traveled to Chicago in late October for an International Association of Chiefs of Police meeting, racking up a $1,200 bill at the Silversmith Hotel.

Lawry traveled to Chicago over some of the same days to research outlet malls, and the records show that she billed Gretna for a lunch at the hotel where Stacey stayed.

The next month, Stacey traveled to Fairfax County, Va., for a fire chiefs association training session, at no cost to the city. Lawry traveled to the same area over the same time to visit outlet malls.

Stacey traveled to Las Vegas in late January for a police workshop, although he didn't charge for a hotel. Lawry's travel to Vegas, again for outlet malls, overlapped. While the auditor's report doesn't show a full hotel bill, Lawry got reimbursed for a room upgrade at Bally's hotel — where Stacey's meeting was held.

An email obtained by The World-Herald shows that Stacey and Lawry had professional involvement together.

In a January email to Berlowitz and Bellevue's mayor, Lawry wrote that she had worked with Stacey “to gain his insight” on the issue of Enhanced 911 service in the county and that they discussed a regional 911 study. Those issues were a topic of debate last year involving all five cities in Sarpy County and Sarpy County government itself.

Lawry, in her email, told her Bellevue colleagues about a “glaring need” facing local governments to learn about a matter that could “result in a magnitude of cost savings to municipalities.”

The glaring and costly issue: maintenance of emergency vehicles.

She pitched a proposal to begin a public safety awareness effort on the state level at a city managers conference in Lincoln. Lawry suggested that the effort would go wider at a Phoenix meeting of the International City/County Management Association.

Bellevue agreed to allow Stacey to participate in a panel.

The overlapping trips were part of a busy travel schedule for both officials.

According to the State Auditor's Office, Lawry booked 11 trips over the course of a year and charged $13,579 to the City of Gretna.

City of Bellevue records show that Stacey booked seven out-of-state trips since March 2011 and charged $3,800 to Bellevue.

Foley said he is not in a position to question Stacey's out-of-state travel. He said he did not know how frequently police chiefs of similar-sized cities attended national conferences or training. Some of Stacey's out-of-state travel expenses were related to his duties with the Bellevue Fire Department.

On Lawry's cross-country travel, Foley said he was troubled by her lack of supporting documentation for some trips.

He said his audit singled out Lawry's travel to Atlanta last August, which included a $667 expense from the Hilton Garden Inn. State auditors were unable to determine what the city funds paid for, Foley said.

“We could not tell what she was buying,” he said. “Were there room charges, a lot of meals, movies? That (documentation) is not there, and there is no receipt.”

Polikov said he had no information to suggest that Stacey's out-of-state travel was not legitimate. He said, however, that Bellevue city leaders would be wise to question Stacey about whether he needed to attend as many national conferences as he did.

Polikov said Lawry's trip to Chicago last October caught his attention.

“I see no merit to going around the country looking at outlet malls,” he said.

In a report on her Atlanta trip, Lawry wrote to Gretna Mayor Sally McGuire that “Atlanta was a successful trip” during which she toured three malls.

In Illinois, Lawry wrote, her brother drove her to the Chicago Premium Outlets, where she got a “behind-the-scenes tour.” The Virginia trip “gave a whole new perspective to my ongoing research,” Lawry wrote. In Vegas, she reported back, she “visited extensively with store owners.”

Gretna is competing with neighboring La Vista for development of an outlet mall.

La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig said city officials made one trip to Kansas City a couple of years ago to see the Power and Light District and get an idea of that project's scope. Its developer, Cordish Co., is behind an outlet mall proposed for La Vista.

Otherwise, Kindig said, La Vista officials don't travel just to look at a mall.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of out-of-state trips Stacey took and the cost of the trips to Bellevue.

“If we want to see a T.J. Maxx, we can look at one in Omaha,” he said. “We haven't made a specific trip to look at other malls as far as I can remember.”

World-Herald staff writer Kevin Cole contributed to this report.

Contact the writer:
402-444-1056, john.ferak@owh.com

* * *

OUT-OF-STATE TRIPS

ATLANTA
Aug. 23-27: John Stacey attends International Association of Fire Chiefs conference and apparatus board meeting.
Aug. 23-26: Colleen Lawry visits three Atlanta-area outlet malls with Gretna's mall developer.

CHICAGO
Oct. 20-25: Stacey attends International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, staying at the Silversmith Hotel and Suites.
Oct. 20-22: Lawry visits Chicago Premium Outlets mall in Aurora, Ill. Her brother, who lives in the Chicago area, drove her to the mall “for research and a behind-the-scenes tour.” Bills city for lunch Oct. 22 at the Silversmith Hotel and Suites.

FAIRFAX, VA.
Nov. 1-3: Stacey attends emergency vehicle training session at the International Association of Fire Chiefs headquarters.
Nov. 1-3: Lawry visits the Washington, D.C., area, visiting malls in Leesburg, Va., and Potomac Mills, Md. Trip includes purchases in Fairfax,Va.

LAS VEGAS
Jan. 22-25: Stacey attends police leadership workshop for the International Association of Chiefs of Police at Bally's hotel.
Jan. 21-25: Lawry reports getting a “behind-the-scenes sense of how the Vegas outlet malls were built and operated.” Expenses include a charge for an upgraded room at Bally's hotel.

Sources: State Auditor's Office, City of Bellevue, City of Gretna

Lawry leaves the Sarpy county Jail.

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