City of San Bernardino Bankruptcy: What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

We do not yet know the full story about what went wrong as far as misstatements or miscalculations (incompetence) or concealment (fraud) of numbers in the City of San Bernardino that led to the situation wherein the City of San Bernardino had or has, at some point, less than $150,000 in its bank account.

First, from primary sources, City staff (on July 9, 2012) stated that as of April 3, 2012, City staff was still misreporting the fund balance.

The Finance Department of the City of San Bernardino created a report, dated July 9, 2012 , Page 7:

Starting General Fund balance has been erroneously stated for the past 2 fiscal

Fiscal Year                                July 1st Audited Fund Balance              Staff Reported Fund Balance
FY 2009-2010                           $2,708,319                                                     $2,557,900
FY 2010-11                               $410,293                                                             $1,770,400
FY 2011 -12                              $(1 ,181,603)                                                       $2,044,100*
*Mid-Year report presented April 3, 2012.

Going back to the April 3, 2012 meeting in the City of San Bernardino’s online archives, I was unable to find any minutes after January 23, 2012.  Here is the April 3, 2012 Agenda for the Joint Adjourned Regular Meeting of the Mayor and Common Council.

In a staff report by Rebecca Garcia, through City Manager Charles McNeely, for Item 3A, the purpose of the workshop was to “Discuss proposed revenue enhancements and cost containment strategies and provide direction
as to measures to be researched and presented for further Council review, analysis and consideration at a future meeting.”  This staff report includes the chart that gives the $2,044,100 opening fund balance for FY 2011-2012, but also has a different number (then in the July 9, 2012 report) for 2010-2011: $2,998,000.

In the staff report by Jason Simpson, Director of Finance, for Item 1A,  on the April 3, 2012 agenda he warns on Page 10:

A major concern that needs to be noted is that the City’ s General Fund continues to be in an
increasing weakening condition and immediate changes need to be made to reverse this financial
condition, build the General Fund Reserve, and stabilize this fund. If these efforts are not made,
insolvency or bankruptcy may result. The Council has an opportunity to resolve the issue and
change the City’ s course. If not, control may be taken out of the Council’ s hands. [Emphasis Added]

However, on packet page 12, Jason Simpson’s report gives the opening fund balance for 2012 as $2,044,100.

Imran Ghori wrote an article published April 3, 2012 at 9:15 p.m., “San Bernardino: City Faces $3.8 millon shortfall[;] The decline in sales and property taxes are hurting the city, a mid-year budget report shows.”  The story starts:

San Bernardino could be headed for insolvency or bankruptcy if it’s not able to get its general fund budget under control, according to a mid-year budget report presented to the mayor and City Council on Tuesday. [Emphasis Added].

The first time the fund balance issue was in the traditional press is in The Sun, “San Bernardino facing bankruptcy if deep cuts aren’t made” by Ryan Hagen, posted online on July 7, 2012 at 8:13:10 p.m. PDT.  In the article, ”

“[Council member Wendy] McCammack also said she was troubled by the budget report’s note that the general fund’s starting balance has been erroneously stated for the past two fiscal years.

That reached a peak several months ago, when then-City Manager Charles McNeely said the fund had a balance of $2 million but the audited fund balance on July 1 turned out to be in the red by $1.2 million.

It appears that the first time that City Attorney James F. Penman mentioned, in public, that 13 out of 16 budgets may have been falsified (and I am paraphrasing from the press account) was at the July 9, 2012 Council Meeting.

As far as what did people know and when did they know it, the rest is from press articles. This article, from public radio station KPCC, “San Bernardino authorities confirm probe into city finances” by Steven Cuevas with Nick Roman, posted 6:00 a.m. on Friday, July 13, 2012 says:

Before the San Bernardino City Council’s bankruptcy vote Tuesday, City Attorney Jim Penman announced that unidentified city administrators had cooked the books to make it appear the city had more cash in reserve than it actually had.

The alleged deceit was uncovered during an audit by new finance staff working under interim city manager Laura Travis-Miller, who took over four months ago.

. . .

Sixth District [sic] councilman Rikke van [sic] Johnson said Penman gave a short briefing to council members prior to the council’s emergency budget meeting Tuesday. But he said it was short on details.

“It wasn’t nothing as far as, ‘OK, this year that happened’ or ‘that year, this happened’ or anything like that,” said Van [sic] Johnson.

“There wasn’t no specifics, other than he said that it’s under investigation. And unfortunately, what was said in that so-called briefing should have stayed in that so-called briefing and went to the right parties. Because we’re dealing with an even bigger issue then that that as far as bankruptcy. All the sudden your issue becomes the lead issue when it shouldn’t be.”

Presumably, this information was given in closed session.
This blog piece comes from an interview yesterday with Interim City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller:  The piece appears in the Los Angeles Times Blog LA NOW, posted July 13, 2012 at 7:25, by Abby Sewell and Phil Willon, labled “Criminal Probe

Miller said the city’s financial problems had been evident for many years, but the full scope was not evident until more recently, when she and the new finance director took a hard look at the books.

She said there had been inaccurate financial reporting in the city for many years, which delayed the process of understanding the full financial picture, but she said she had not seen evidence of deliberate wrongdoing.

“I have not found that there’s anything more than negligence, maybe sloppiness,” she said, adding that staffers at the time were stretched thin because of cuts.

Andrea Travis-Miller became acting City Manager on May 8, 2012, but was assistant before.  Jason Simpson began work on March 28, 2012.  So, if the quotes from Andrea Travis-Miller are correct, the problem was found sometime between March 28, 2012 and when the July 9, 2012 report was posted.

Bankruptcy was first mentioned in the April 3, 2012 staff report.  The misstating of the fund balance was found some time after March 28, 2012, but not reported on April 3, 2012 by Jason Simpson in his staff report.  The first public document showing the wrong data for two years was in a report for the July 9, 2012 meeting.  Time will tell  what they knew, and when they knew it.

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