Union dues from Buffalo police officers financed lavish trips to out-of-town conferences for Police Benevolent Association officers, their spouses or significant others, according to a draft audit obtained by The Buffalo News.
Those dues also paid questionable bills for liquor that may never have been poured and overpriced lunches for the union’s board of directors.
And over a two-year period, former longtime Buffalo PBA President Lt. Robert P. Meegan Jr. charged a total of $56,000 for meals and entertainment, conferences, airline tickets for himself and a guest, lodging, auto expenses and other costs.
Those are the major findings of a local accounting firm’s audit of Meegan’s and the union’s spending practices for 2010 and 2011, according to a copy of the audit’s preliminary results released last week and obtained by The News.
Many of the questionable reimbursements were paid to Meegan for a host of charges on his union-issued American Express credit card, the audit stated. Those charges included meals while he was at his home in Florida.
When auditors asked him about the charges, Meegan said PBA business required him to be on the job around the clock.
“We inquired as to the nature of the restaurant charges, and Meegan indicated that he would entertain other PBA officers and politicians in Florida and throughout Western New York,” the audit says. “He stated that the PBA was a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week job and that as PBA president he was required to buy drinks, lunches and dinners to benefit PBA members.”
The draft report also lists 26 PBA board of directors’ luncheon meetings over the two-year period, where the amounts spent “may be deemed excessive.” Half of those lunches included expenditures of at least $1,000, led by lunches for $2,400, $1,650, $1,625 and $1,500.
Those lunches typically included between 10 and 20 PBA officials and guests.
When The News contacted Meegan on Saturday and asked about the out-of-town conferences, lunches and other costs, he replied: “I was authorized to do whatever I had to do to make sure the officers got what they got. Whatever had to be done.”
Meegan, who served as PBA president for 24 years, has not seen a copy of the draft audit.
“Until I get a look at the report, I think it would be unfair to comment,” he added. “It would be unfair in deference to the union’s elected officers, who worked very hard on behalf of Buffalo police officers for 24 years, in garnering them decent salaries, benefits, work schedules, pensions and seniority, to name a few of the things we accomplished.”
Asked about the credit card charges, Meegan added, “Never once in the 24 years we were up there was there ever a cash transaction. Everything was done by credit card or check.”
The Buffalo accounting firm of Freed Maxick was hired by the current union leadership that replaced Meegan to review the records of 2010 and 2011 after Meegan retired 14 months ago.
Auditors stated it appeared he was twice reimbursed $2,000 for the same expenditure at a union conference.
The accounting firm examined those spending practices after union members raised concerns over money spent by the former leadership, according to a letter current PBA President Lt. James Panus sent to union delegates.
“We all know there have been many rumors, accusations and claims flying around about our past PBA finances,” Panus wrote. “Some of these claims have been widely exaggerated.”
The point of the audit, he stated in his letter, was to provide the members with an accurate assessment of spending practices and allow the union to move forward with more important issues that are threatening police benefits statewide.
Many of the audit’s recommendations about tightening the way the union does business were already in place prior to completion of the review, Panus added.
“Even prior to the report, we recognized that the PBA finances and bookkeeping were in the Stone Age,” Panus said Saturday. “We’ve now brought them into the 21st century.”
Panus added that the union also has updated its bylaws to create a system of checks and balances for all its accounts.
PBA members pay a percentage of their salary and overtime in union dues, and the annual amount can often exceed $1,000, according to past and present union members. The PBA has more than 700 dues-paying members and in previous years there were well over 800.
Referring to the widespread practice of union board members being allowed to take a guest, either a spouse or significant other, to out-of-town conferences, that has been an “unwritten policy” of the PBA, the audit reported.
The draft copy also cites the airline expenses on Meegan’s credit card for the 24-month period:
“Total airline expenses for a spouse or significant other amounted to $3,349. The purchase of the spouse’s airline ticket should not have been included as a PBA expense and also should have been included on the board member’s W-2 [form] or reimbursed.
“Meegan indicated that neither he nor the other board members knew the treatment of the guest’s airline ticket was not proper.”
PBA officials at a June 2011 conference in Las Vegas were given $2,000 each but never were required to submit bills to verify that their spending was on union-related expenses, the audit found.
“Meegan indicated that the amounts were for spending money for meals, golf, etc. We advised Meegan that the proper treatment would have been to view the $2,000 to each individual as an advance and to have them provide receipts supporting their expenses and PBA business reason.
“Any amounts not spent should have been remitted back to the PBA. Due to the lack of supporting documentation, it is impossible to conclude as to their propriety.”
Among those receiving the stipends were now-retired Capt. Mark Morgan and Central District Lt. Sean O’Brien, who were PBA officers at the time.
When he was first elected PBA president more than two decades ago, Meegan explained to the auditors, the outgoing union president had “instructed him” that it was proper to use the union credit card to entertain PBA members and politicians, and to cover other various expenses incurred as president.
“Meegan stated that he had discussed the credit card charges and what documentation was required to be maintained with someone at the PBA’s previous accounting firm and he was advised that it was not necessary to maintain receipts or invoices,” the audit stated.
Meegan’s immediate predecessor as PBA president was now-retired Lt. Larry J. Baehre, who served in the position in 1986 and 1987.
“We did have a PBA credit card, and it was proper to use it for approved PBA expenses, but it was not a carte blanche credit card,” Baehre said Saturday.
“It was to be used for legitimate, and very minimal, expenses,” he added. “I’d be astonished if the credit card bill was ever over $250 a month.”
The PBA’s annual summer outing at Darien Lake amusement park also came under question with concern about the purchase of alcohol and lodging.
“It was noted there were payments made to Frontier Liquor and Pellicano’s out of the benefit fund for family day at Darien Lake. Based on discussions with various board members, there was no alcohol provided at the event and it is unclear why there would be these vendor payments.”
The auditors also raised questions about why Meegan charged the PBA for lodging at Darien Lake during the annual event.
“Based on discussions with various board members, this was not an approved expense of the PBA,” the audit stated.
The audit contains 11 specific recommendations from Freed Maxick, including the PBA creating a better system of accountability, putting records on an electronic software program, a monthly review to reconcile bank statements with charges, a better spelling out of spending practices in the PBA bylaws and better control of payments from the PBA treasurer to its delegates.
As union president, Meegan’s salary was $34,500 annually, in addition to his lieutenant’s salary of $84,000. He retired from the Buffalo Police Department at the end of 2011, after taking over the union presidency on Jan. 1, 1988.
Just before he retired, Meegan noted that the top basic pay for a Buffalo police officer during his tenure rose from $22,400 to $64,095. He also took credit for taking politics out of the Police Department, with a seniority system that prevented officers from being transferred in and out of positions at the whim of the city.