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Travel Costs Soar at EMSA

TULSA, Okla. -- Executives at EMSA have spent more than $100,000 a year the past three years on travel-related costs, including thousands for catered meals, $500-a-night hotel rooms, $100 for a car wash and nearly $3,000 for a retirement party, records show.

An investigation by the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman shows the Emergency Medical Services Authority has spent about $400,000 on travel, meals and related costs since fiscal year 2009.

More than a third of that was for EMSA CEO Steve Williamson's role as president of a national industry association.

The agency's eastern division paid for slightly less than half of the total travel costs while the western division paid the rest.

Williamson said the costs are worth it. "It's two-tenths of 1 percent of our budget, and these meetings are all highly documented on the effect it has on our system," he said. "All of these are necessary to stay current with the changes in health care."

EMSA is a government agency that manages ambulance services for more than 1 million people in Tulsa, Sand Springs, Jenks and Bixby, as well as Oklahoma City and numerous suburbs in that area.

The agency receives about $4.8 million a year from a monthly utility bill fee paid by Tulsans. The Tulsa City Council last week approved a measure that would give the city more control over funds from the utility fee.

Mayor Dewey Bartlett has said he is opposed to the ordinance because restrictions are being written into EMSA's contract. He said he hasn't decided whether he will veto the proposed ordinance.

EMSA's travel spending went from $110,000 in fiscal year 2009 to $132,000 last fiscal year. That compares with $287,000 spent by the city of Tulsa last fiscal year.

The city has about 3,500 employees while EMSA has 46.

Williamson spent the most on travel by far. Records show he incurred at least $134,770 in travel costs since 2009. Williamson's charges during the years reviewed by the World and Oklahoman included numerous first-class flights costing up to $2,700 round trip.

Williamson said he is under doctor's orders to fly first class due to medical problems. Though two coach seats would have been cheaper in some cases, Williamson said that still wouldn't allow him the needed leg room.

Williamson provided a letter from a Tulsa physician, Denny E. Krout, dated Feb. 1, 1984, stating Williamson needs to fly first class because of various health issues.

Williamson said the matter was reviewed by EMSA's board in 1984, and he has not been asked since then to provide further proof he needs to fly first class.

"They know that since then I've had more surgeries, I had my knees replaced and I was in the hospital June of this year for a blood clot deal."

One travel charge Williamson billed to EMSA was a $163 charge at Fine Airport Parking in February, which included a $100 car wash. Though the receipt identifies the car as his Lexus, Williamson said the charge was actually for an EMSA-owned Ford Excursion he drove.

The agency's board approves an annual travel budget and receives information about overall costs monthly but does not see line-item expenditures. The board chairman or vice chairman approves Williamson's expense reports.

Gary Marrs, an EMSA trustee and Oklahoma City councilman, said he plans to use the framework of EMSA trust meetings to look at travel expenses more closely.

"I think the fact that this kind of stuff is so easily obtained when somebody wants to do a story on it, it kind of makes me wonder why the trust doesn't know more to begin with," he said.

Anthony Shadid, also an EMSA trustee and Oklahoma City councilman, said the expenses are evidence of the need for more scrutiny by trustees of EMSA spending in general, not just on travel, meetings and lobbyists. "(It's) very excessive. And if it's not even for EMSA-related activity, it's all the more unacceptable."

Shadid scoffed at the notion Williamson's first-class travel is justified by the doctor's note from 1984. "Board approval for first-class tickets based on a doctor's note and a board vote that's 27 years old? Really?"

Industry group trips The largest category of travel spending was related to Williamson's role with the American Ambulance Association. EMSA paid at least $153,700 since 2009 for travel related to the industry association, records show.

Williamson is president of the association. AAA budgets $16,000 per year for its president's hotel costs while EMSA pays for remaining costs, such as food and airfare. Williamson's term as president began November 2010 and ends in November 2012. All hotel expenses for Williamson before then were paid for by EMSA. Williamson said his work with AAA has been essential to getting a 2 percent tax credit from the government that has added up to $1.5 million during the period reviewed by the World and Oklahoman.

The credit existed before Williamson took the post, but he said he has fought to keep it by testifying before Congress and working behind the scenes.

"A lot of business is done on relationships, and I'm able to develop those relationships that help us locally," he said.

Tristan North, senior vice president for government affairs at AAA, said Williamson is "definitely uniquely qualified and has been very helpful to us in our efforts."

Williamson made multiple trips to Washington, D.C., as part of his AAA duties. Expenses during those trips included a $500-a-night stay at the Fairmont Hotel in D.C. and numerous room service meals, including one meal costing $98, records show. Williamson said he has no control over which hotels he stays in because AAA chooses the hotels. He said he often orders room service because it allows him to continue working.

"I can order room service and eat there and catch up on my emails and do my job," he said.

EMSA also paid for meals for other AAA executives, records show. EMSA paid $468 last year for Williamson and other AAA executives to eat at Morton's Steakhouse in Vienna, Va. Williamson said "it was my turn to buy." "Do I think it's OK occasionally? I think I've done three in four years ... I don't think it's out of line that at some point I pay for one."

Williamson said EMSA has no per diem limit on travel expenditures. He said his spending in D.C. is in line with government standards for that city. EMSA also paid for a $60 "welcome basket" for AAA executive Maria Bianchi when she came to Oklahoma City to speak at an event. A handwritten note regarding that expense states: "Steve had me call the Skirvin and order flowers, choc strawberries and a slip of champagne for Maria."

Shadid questioned the need for EMSA to participate in AAA or other lobbying. EMSA pays a lobbying firm $40,000 per year for state legislative issues in addition to the expenses related to AAA, he noted. EMSA Chief Financial Officer Kent Torrence billed EMSA for two dinners costing more than $600 each in 2009, records show. Torrence expensed a $657 dinner at the Beef N Bottle in Charlotte, N.C., and a $616 dinner at The Ford in Morrison, Colo. Williamson said the trips were related to EMSA's purchase of a new dispatch system, and the meals included representatives from the company providing the system.

"It's only professional courtesy to offer to take them to dinner," he said.

Some of the expenses lack documentation required by EMSA's travel policy. The policy requires "business purpose for entertainment including any area of business discussion before, during or after entertainment" to be listed, along with names of participants and their organizations.

Williamson said noting the names of who ate the meals and the organization is sufficient. $2,800 retirement party Former Executive Vice President Ann Singer ranked a distant second in travel spending among EMSA executives, with $34,797 in travel expenses. EMSA paid $2,823 for a catered party July 23, 2010, when Singer retired. The party for 150 guests was catered by the Palace Cafe at the Tulsa Garden Center and featured a center cut sirloin platter and Asian smoked salmon.

"Ann was here 24 years. She was No. 2. She's nationally known (in) how to do the medical coding for our type of billing services. When she was ready to retire, we wanted to have a function for her," Williamson said.

However, Singer continued to work for EMSA as a consultant. She was kept on a $1,000-a-month retainer for one year after she retired, records show. EMSA also spent more than $50,000 on costs for meetings and meals since 2009. Records show about half of that was spent to cater meals by Lambrusco's, Elmer's barbecue, Earl's Rib Palace and other restaurants and caterers. Williamson said some of the money is spent on doctors, who can often meet only at lunch. Other meal charges are for meetings with paramedics. Lunches were also bought during Ozone Alert days in Tulsa, to keep employees from driving their cars, he said.

"But they (alert days) started happening more often, so we quit that," he said.


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