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Sheriff defends use of county-issued credit cards

Sheriff Chris Leppler, left, speaks to the Lancaster County board of directors on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. At the dias are, from left, Solicitor Jackie Pfursich and commissioners Alice Yoder, Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

An April 20 LNP Watchdog article questioning purchases made by the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office was a “false and scurrilous” hit piece, Sheriff Chris Leppler said Tuesday.

In implying he had improperly used county-issued credit cards known as purchase cards or “p-cards,” it baselessly smeared his and his office’s reputation, Leppler said in a prepared statement he read during the county commissioner’s work session.

Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino joined Leppler in accusing LNP reporter Tom Lisi of bias toward Republican officials and of maliciously writing “outright lies.” Leppler concluded by saying he would no longer respond to Lisi’s inquiries in any way; D’Agostino said the same.

LNP reported on Leppler’s rebuttal on Wednesday. LNP Executive Editor Tom Murse did not respond to an email from One United Lancaster seeking additional comment.

The Watchdog article stemmed from questions about the county’s internal controls over p-card purchases. Two county audits, one conducted in 2018, the other in 2022, both reported important shortcomings. (The audit reports were finalized and released in 2019 and 2023, respectively.)

LNP obtained records of the county’s p-card transactions through a Right-to-Know request. Leppler was a focus of the ensuing article “because many of his 25 different transactions last year did not indicate the purpose for thousands of dollars in spending,” according to LNP’s Wednesday article.

It indicates that based on statements from county Controller Lisa Colon, Lisi had thought the sheriff’s 2023 purchases from Home Depot were used in renovating the sheriff’s office lobby. When he toured the lobby, some of those items were not to be found — vinyl flooring, storage shelves, hoses, a fiberglass door — which he documented in the April 20 article. LNP published an editorial based on the piece the following week.

The items were absent because they were for other areas of the department, including areas off limits to civilians, Leppler said Tuesday. In his statement, he listed each one’s location and use.

“We provided the required documentation for every purchase that was made, period,” he said.

The implication of the April 20 article was that the items had been stolen, Parsons said, but that was a falsehood and an “easily ascertainable” one. A May 4 story implying the items had since been documented was false, too, he said: “These items were always accounted for.”

LNP said that until Tuesday, Leppler hadn’t responded to questions about the p-cards for a full month. The sheriff acknowledged that he had cut off communication with Lisi entirely and referred him to Colon, saying he did so when the reporter’s emails turned accusatory.

The article quotes Colon saying there had been a miscommunication: She had asked Leppler about Home Depot p-card purchases in general, rather than specifically referencing 2023, as Lisa had. In response, the sheriff had referenced the reception area.

P-card purchases are reviewed and reconciled monthly by the county Purchasing Department, he said, and audited by the controller’s office. Moreover, sheriff’s departments are subject to audit by the Pennsylvania auditor general.

“There are so many checks and balances in the county system, it would be impossible to use it (a p-card) for inappropriate reasons,” Leppler said.

The sheriff said the lobby renovation actually took place in 2020, not 2023. Because the pandemic had reduced the department’s work load, his staff did the renovations, which kept the cost under $40,000, versus more than $500,000 if the project had been contracted out, he said.

Leppler gave Colon a full tour of the sheriff’s offices after the April 20 article, allowing her to document the items in question. He did not respond to Lisi’s request to do the same.

What the 2022 p-card audit says

Audits of Lancaster County’s “p-card” system in 2018 and 2022 both found shortcomings and both called for updates to the policies governing the cards’ use.

P-cards, or “purchase cards,” are county issued credit cards. They improve efficiency and save resources by allowing designated employees to make smaller-scale purchases without going through the more cumbersome purchase-order process.

The more recent of the two audits, conducted under the oversight of Controller Lisa Colon, examined a random subset of transactions between January and March 2022, as well as all 46 transactions of $1,000 or more during that period.

It found a number of incorrect “codings” — purchases attributed to the wrong expense account — and three expenditures without detailed receipts. For 18 of the $1,000-and-up purchases, there was no indication of pre-approval from the county purchasing director, as required at that level of cost.

Staff who are issued p-cards are supposed to have properly filled-out cardholder agreements; the audit found that several were missing or incomplete.

Those issues have been or are being remedied, Colon said. All cardholders have been fully apprised of p-card use requirements. The audit recommends updating the p-card policy to enforce the rules on pre-approval and supplying receipts and impose sanctions for noncompliance. In LNP’s April 20 article, Colon said she and other administrators are in the process of developing those rules, which would be presented to the county commissioners for their approval.

Another LNP reporter at the work session, Dan Nephin, asked Leppler why he couldn’t have agreed to the tour and shown Lisi the items in question, noting he and other reporters have been allowed into secure areas with appropriate safeguards. Leppler said his lack of trust in Lisi put that off the table.

Speaking toward the end of the work session, Colon said that while the 2022 audit had found shortcomings in documentation, none of its findings are indicative of fraud. As controller, she said, she has authority to “surcharge” staff if a purchase is problematic; or the county can refer cases to the district attorney. “At no point” has there been a need to do so, she said.

D’Agostino and Parsons said the incident confirms the complaints they have been making about LNP. Both have accused the news outlet repeatedly of partisan bias and intentional misreporting.

Last fall, former LNP publisher Bob Krasne wrote that those accusations are themselves partisan “disinformation” and an attempt to weaken accountability.

Parsons, besides criticizing LNP’s reporting, has cited reporters and editors’ social media activity as evidence of bias and hostility to conservatives. On Tuesday, he cited Lisi’s online endorsement of a derogatory tweet about Parsons himself, saying it should disqualify him from the county beat. The tweet is “demonstrably false” and liking it shows “you’re acting with malice,” he said.

Alice Yoder, the sole Democrat on the board of commissioners, thanked Leppler for his service and assured him that he’s done “some phenomenal things. … A lot of people do know that you’ve done some really great work.” The questions over the p-card policy are leading the county to look at ways to improve it, and that should be beneficial, she said.