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Sen. Lesil McGuire says staff spent state money on Seattle trip without permission

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 23, 2015

State Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said one of her staff members, Genevieve Wojtusik, used her signature without permission to authorize a state-paid trip to Seattle last month for Wojtusik and another of McGuire's employees.

Wojtusik and fellow staffer Amy Saltzman's trips to the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual summit cost a total of $6,500. That's after the two said they would reimburse the state for $2,600 in hotel costs, which were originally $460 per night. The two together stayed a total of 13 nights.

McGuire said she had not been aware when Wojtusik signed the senator's name on a pair of forms authorizing the trips. Wojtusik had the authority to sign McGuire's name, but she should have asked for approval first and didn't, McGuire said.

McGuire said in a text message Wednesday that she was "revoking all signing authority in my office" -- meaning that her staff members will no longer have the ability to sign her name, or their names, to authorize travel or committee spending.

While Wojtusik had mentioned the summit to McGuire during the legislative session earlier this year, "she never asked permission (or) told me what specific conference and dates," McGuire said.

Wojtusik responded to a phone message and emailed questions with a prepared statement. It said she had authority to sign off on travel expenses under a minor committee McGuire controls, the Administrative Regulation Review Committee, but Wojtusik said she "neglected to add my initials and present the full details of the trip."

The trip ended up being more expensive than expected because she and Saltzman couldn't book a hotel at the discounted conference rate, and they also extended their trip to participate in NCSL meetings of the Women's Legislative Network, Wojtusik's statement said.

"I have accepted full responsibility and both Amy and I have personally reimbursed the state for the extra costs," she said.

Saltzman and Wojtusik were two of 42 staff and lawmakers from the Alaska Legislature who traveled to the conference in Seattle, though the contingent did not include McGuire herself. The state's total cost for the trips was more than $91,000, on top of $107,000 in annual dues that the Legislature pays to NCSL.

Lawmakers defended the expense by citing an array of subjects addressed at the conference that are relevant to their work in Alaska, with sessions on transportation, natural resources and health care -- though they acknowledged that their robust attendance could complicate their message about the urgency of the state's ongoing budget crisis.

In a phone interview last week, McGuire originally said her employees' trips had been approved by Senate President Kevin Meyer. But Meyer said by phone this week that McGuire "threw me under the bus."

"We didn't approve her staff to travel," he said.

McGuire said she had mistakenly identified Meyer as authorizing the travel because she knew she hadn't signed the forms herself.

"I assumed the presiding officer had," she said.

Wojtusik had actually signed McGuire's name on a pair of travel request memos -- one for Wojtusik and one for Saltzman -- McGuire said. Copies of the memos show McGuire's name signed twice on each one, once to indicate McGuire was requesting the travel and a second time to show she'd approved it.

The Legislature has a policy allowing lawmakers to authorize staff members to sign documents on their behalf -- whether that's related to senators' $20,000 office allowances, or committee funds they control, said Pam Varni, the director of the Legislative Affairs Agency. Varni said she was unaware of specific guidelines, however, requiring staff members to sign their own names, or to signify when they've signed the name of their boss.

McGuire said Wojtusik had authority to sign the memos on her behalf, but should have asked first.

"All my committee aides and staff have shown me documents even when they sign," McGuire said. "This has never happened."

The money for the trips came from the Administrative Regulation Review Committee, which McGuire chairs.

The committee technically does not have a travel budget -- the $55,000 that the Legislature allocated to it this year is under a line item for "services." But that money can be used for other line items at McGuire's discretion, Varni said.

The committee's budget also pays part of Wojtusik's $96,000 salary as of July, according to a Legislative Affairs Agency breakdown of staff compensation.

The travel authorization memos for Saltzman and Wojtusik said the two would travel to the NCSL conference and attend a meeting between the Seattle and Anchorage fire departments on Aug. 7, "to go over safety regulations in large/spread out cities."

It's not clear that meeting took place. A spokesman for the Anchorage Fire Department, John See, said the department did not have a meeting in Seattle on that date.

McGuire said she hadn't spoken to her employees about the meeting, and Saltzman and Wojtusik didn't respond to an emailed question about it.

Saltzman also didn't respond to a phone message. Saltzman hadn't seen the travel authorization memos, McGuire said.

Pat Forgey contributed to this report.

Correction: This story originally misstated the amount of money that the employees reimbursed the state for hotel costs. The employees reimbursed the state a total of $2,600, not $1,600.

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