On Dec. 17, 2014, Glendale City Councilman Sammy Chavira received a cheery email from his friend Ruben Gallego, who had just been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gallego and his wife invited him to attend Gallego’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., via an email sent from Gallego’s campaign account to Chavira’s personal account.
Nineteen days later, Chavira arrived in Washington — and the charges started piling up: $1,282 for airfare on US Airways; $685 for two nights’ lodging at the JW Marriott hotel near the White House; $78 for a room-service steak burger and other meals; $30 for a couple of cab rides.
Chavira’s bills totaled $2,075. He expensed it all to Glendale taxpayers.
A few months later, Gallego invited Chavira back to Washington to watch Pope Francis’ address to Congress. Chavira expensed $1,933 to Glendale taxpayers for that trip.
Glendale allots thousands of dollars to each council member for travel annually. Its travel policy dictates that expenditures should only be incurred for “clear business needs” that benefit the city.
Those trips were among 13 out-of-state trips that the first-term councilman expensed to Glendale taxpayers since taking office in January 2013, according to documents obtained by The Arizona Republic through public-records requests.
The Republic also found:
- Chavira expensed six trips to the nation’s capital. During one, Chavira, who works as a Phoenix firefighter, charged Glendale taxpayers for a $420 seafood dinner for several guests, including two of his Phoenix Fire Department supervisors and a supervisor’s spouse.
- Chavira made three trips to the Los Angeles area, including two for economic-development purposes, though documentation of those ventures is vague.
- The councilman regularly racks up hundreds of dollars of airline fees for late changes to his flight plans and for baggage — doubling, tripling and quadrupling original charges. One postponed flight allowed Chavira to attend a party that then-Councilman Gary Sherwood hosted the night of his recall election. Sherwood lost the recall.
- Chavira and Sherwood shared the lead as the most frequent fliers on the council. They charged taxpayers for 13 out-of-state trips each since 2013, though all of Sherwood’s trips were to attend conferences.
- Glendale has lax controls over council members’ travel expenses, allowing each member to spend as much as $18,000 a year to attend conferences and to cover office expenses, with few restrictions.
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Chavira and his assistant scheduled and canceled three interviews with The Republicto discuss the matter. Finally, Chavira agreed to answer emailed questions, but instead he outlined the goals of his travels in general terms and did not address specific questions about the expenses.
“I made these trips on behalf of the city for legitimate purposes — to pursue economic development opportunities; to cement valuable relationships; to help improve Glendale public safety and to secure our city’s share of federal funds and grants,” he stated in the email.
Overall, he billed $24,307 for the 13 trips.
Council members police their own expenses
Each council member controls an $18,000-a-year expense budget, according to Glendale’s City Council guidelines. One stipulation is the money must be “for city business only.”
Ultimately, each council member is responsible for certifying that his or her travel expenses are for city business, said Brent Stoddard, the city’s director of intergovernmental programs.
Vice Mayor Ian Hugh said elected officials should be prepared to defend their spending.
“The council has a lot of leeway how they spend it, but you then have to answer to the public on the rationale why,” he said.
Hugh is one of two sitting council members who haven’t expensed any out-of-state trips since 2013. Ray Malnar, who replaced Sherwood in November 2015, is the other.
Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, questioned how Chavira could justify the Gallego and pope trips as official city business.
“It’s staggering to me that people don’t get it — that taxpayers not only aren’t going to support it, but it undermines their confidence when this sort of stuff happens. It should be a given that it’s inappropriate to use taxpayer money for personal travel,” he said.
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The invitation to Gallego’s inauguration included these events: an all-day open house at Gallego’s congressional office in the Longworth House Office Building, a ceremonial swearing-in at the Jones Day law office, a televised swearing-in back at the Longworth building and a happy-hour reception at the Hawk ’n’ Dove restaurant and bar.
It wasn’t clear from emails which events Chavira attended.
Zoom in on this interactive map to see details of all 13 of Chavira’s trips. Mobile users, click here.
Gallego, a Democrat, is serving his freshman term in Congress. His 7th Congressional District covers parts of Phoenix and Glendale, including approximately 8 square miles of Chavira’s district.
Chavira’s expense report noted that the purpose of the trip was “Congressional Swearing in for Ruben Gallego.” In his email to The Republic, he stated that he was invited as an elected leader.
“With that said, my trip to Washington was about far more than the inauguration. That trip also included numerous meetings related to the Urban Area Safety Initiative, a program meant to help urban regions like Glendale and the Valley work to combat terrorism and lower crime,” he stated in the email.
He did not provide documentation for those meetings, but he would have been on a tight schedule.
According to his expense report, he was scheduled to arrive at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at 7:47 p.m. the day before the inauguration, and leave at 10:25 a.m. the day after.
Seeing Pope Francis
Eight months after the swearing-in trip, Chavira accepted an invitation from Gallego to travel to Washington again to watch a broadcast of the pope’s address to Congress. Chavira expensed a $1,933 trip from Sept. 23-25, 2015, records show.
An assistant for Gallego offered Chavira a ticket for a seat to watch the broadcast on the West Terrace of the Capitol.
Chavira responded, “Thank you! I am very blessed and honored to have you think about me!”
The next day, Chavira’s assistant asked Gallego’s assistant if a second ticket was available, because Chavira wanted to bring a guest. The emails did not specify whether Chavira was given a second ticket.
Chavira’s expense report stated that the purpose of the trip was “Invited to see the pope in D.C. by Congressman Gallego.”
In his email to The Republic, Chavira stated: “While my trip to Washington D.C. in 2015 included attending the pope’s appearance in the Capitol, this was not just ‘a trip to see the Pope.’ My agenda for that trip included multiple meetings focused on using fire fighters to impact the prevalence of sex trafficking and to help victims of sex trafficking.”
His meetings included those with Gallego and U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., he stated in the email.
Gallego’s assistant Christina Carr told The Republic that Chavira and Gallego met briefly in the congressman’s office on the day of the pope’s speech to discuss local issues and the papal visit.
Sinema’s assistant Macey Matthews said Chavira and Sinema did not have an official meeting, but they talked briefly at the Capitol on the day of the pope’s visit. “She doesn’t remember the specific details of what they discussed,” Matthews wrote in an email.
Chavira’s expense reports show he was on a tight schedule then, too.
He was scheduled to arrive at Reagan National at 4:08 p.m. the day before the pope’s speech, and leave at 10:30 a.m. the day after.
Cities use various guidelines to define legitimate travel, said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, an organization that represents municipalities before the state Legislature.
“Clearly, any travel that an elected official does on behalf of the city should be related to city business,” he said.
“I take kind of a biased view on this. I think a lot of people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be traveling,’ ” Strobeck said. “You don’t find a whole lot of wisdom just if you go into the same office every day and don’t ever get any outside ideas.”
State and national conferences offer valuable training and educational programs, he said.
Strobeck declined to comment about whether the Gallego and pope trips should be considered city business.
Dinner with Phoenix bosses
While Chavira serves as an elected city councilman for Glendale, he works as a firefighter for Phoenix. He’s also involved with the Urban Area Safety Initiative, a federal program that provides grants to further municipal and regional preparedness for terrorism and major disasters.
Chavira expensed a $3,236 trip to Washington on Oct. 8-10, 2014, for meetings associated with the grants program.
During the trip, he charged Glendale taxpayers for a $420 dinner for himself and several guests at Johnny’s Half Shell, a seafood restaurant with views of Capitol Hill. They had four orders of shrimp cocktail, 1½ dozen oysters, four orders of seafood stew, halibut, scallops, gumbo and more.
According to Chavira’s expense report, the dinner party included Phoenix Fire Chief Kara Kalkbrenner and Assistant Chief Scott Krushak, plus Kalkbrenner’s husband, Phoenix Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Kevin Kalkbrenner.
Other dinner-party guests included Phoenix Police Executive Assistant Chief Dave Harvey and Phoenix Councilman Daniel Valenzuela. Former Glendale Fire Chief Mark Burdick, who has since resigned and announced his candidacy in the Glendale mayoral race, also attended.
Phoenix Fire Deputy Chief Shelly Jamison said Kara Kalkbrenner felt there were no improprieties in allowing a subordinate to pick up the bill.
“The group did accept Chavira’s offer to pay and apparently understood that it would be reimbursed by city expenses,” Jamison said.
Glendale City Councilwoman Lauren Tolmachoff said she has several questions about the matter.
“I don’t really know what that was about. If he was traveling as a Phoenix firefighter, I don’t know how you charge any of that to the city of Glendale. I’m not really sure what the details were of that trip — and yeah, a $400 meal is ridiculous.”
Trips to California
Concerning the California trips, Chavira noted in expense records that the purpose for a trip to Montebello, Calif., in November 2015 was “Economic Development-grid projects & special events in CA.”
He wrote that the reason for a trip to West Covina, Calif., in October 2015 was “Light Rail and bring LA restaurant to CB Ranch in CA,” a reference to Glendale’s spring-training park Camelback Ranch.
In his email to The Republic, Chavira stated that the trips combined multiple opportunities.
“I met with the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), which is an excellent model for innovation and entrepreneurship that I hope to implement in Glendale. Additionally, these two trips involved meetings with a number of political and sports-world leaders concerning the possibility of partnerships back home in Glendale,” he stated.
Chavira did not include names of business, political and sports leaders with whom he met. Officials with the clean-tech concern did not return messages about the matter.
The October 2015 trip followed an introduction Chavira facilitated between Glendale resident Luis De La Cruz and officials at Glendale’s spring-training stadium.
De La Cruz is the majority owner of Manuel’s Original El Tepeyac Café, a Los Angeles restaurant known for its five-pound burrito. During the meeting, De La Cruz proposed the idea of El Tepeyac selling items at Camelback Ranch stadium, according to De La Cruz and stadium President Jeff Overton.
The group met at Camelback Ranch on Sept. 1, 2015, but no deals were struck. In October, Chavira sampled the food at El Tepeyac in Los Angeles and De La Cruz introduced him to officials at the clean-tech incubator, De La Cruz said in an interview.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox play spring-training games at Camelback Ranch.
Brian Friedman, the city’s economic-development director, said he did not accompany Chavira on the trips and that the councilman didn’t coordinate with him about them. Friedman said he is unfamiliar with the term “grid projects.”
By comparison, Mayor Jerry Weiers coordinated with Glendale economic-development officials on three of his five business-recruitment trips. Those three trips were affiliated with the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, while the other two were associated with Lockheed Martin, the aerospace company that manufactures F-35 fighter jets that are based at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale.
No other council members expensed similar trips.
Additional costs for late and change fees
Chavira frequently incurs charges for changing his flights and rebooking them at higher fees on short notice. In addition, he nearly always checks two pieces of luggage, incurring $120 or more in luggage fees, even on short jaunts.
- On a trip to Nashville, Tenn., for a League of Cities conference on Nov. 4-6, 2015, change fees and other fees increased a $394 airfare to $895.
- On a trip to Montebello, Calif., for light-rail meetings on Dec. 4-5, 2014, change fees and other fees pushed a $342 airfare to $652.
- On a trip to Austin, Texas, for a League of Cities conference on Nov. 19-22, 2014, change fees and other fees jacked up a $243 airfare to $1,039.
- On a trip to Washington, D.C., for another League of Cities conference on March 7-12, 2014, change fees and other fees elevated a $425 airfare to $1,436.
Since taking office, he has charged taxpayers a combined $3,136 in rebooking fees and other airline fees, records show.
Fellow council members have noticed that Chavira is a heavy traveler, Tolmachoff said. For example, he arrived a day after most other council members on the Nashville trip, but checked at least two pieces of luggage.
“It’s like, how in the world can you even bring that much stuff with you? I mean, I don’t know. Maybe he needs a lot of hair products and that sort of thing,” she said.
Chavira did not submit baggage-fee receipts for the Nashville trip. Instead, he submitted three documents for lost or missing receipts, a common practice for him.
One document for the Nashville trip accounted for $60 in baggage fees for the outgoing American Airlines flight on Nov. 4. A second document noted an additional $75 in baggage fees for the same flight. A third document logged $60 in baggage fees for the return flight two days later.
American Airlines typically charges $25 for a single checked piece each way, $35 for a second and $150 for a third.
Nothing in Chavira’s expense reports account for the discrepancies.
Chavira stated in the email to The Republic, “I’ve never hidden these trips. I’ve documented each and every trip, per city policy. I believe the trips are consistent with my role as an advocate for our city, Glendale residents and our business owners.”
Tolmachoff, who is in her first term, said she was surprised by the city’s lack of controls over travel expenses.
The city has covered three out-of-state trips for Tolmachoff since she took office in December 2014. All were for conferences.
“We have to turn in our receipts and sign for everything, but it’s not like other places where I’ve had expenses that I turned in where people were actually reviewing it,” she said.