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Vernon officials enjoyed first-class travel, luxury hotels and limo service -- all at city expense

September 8, 2010 |  2:57 pm

Top administrators in the city of Vernon, already among the highest-paid local officials in the state, racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars on first-class flights, rooms at luxury hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and limousine service paid for by the city, records reviewed by The Times show.

The records, which date back to 2005, detail lavish travel expenses billed to the city by its top executives, including former city administrators Donal O’Callaghan and Eric T. Fresch. Some of the trips occurred as recently as this year, when the city laid off employees and stripped the life and health insurance benefits of city workers’ spouses and children because of budget problems.

Details of the travel expenses come amid growing scrutiny of the largely industrial city of 95 residents, where top city attorneys and administrators received high salaries, most notably Fresch, who in 2008 earned more than $1.6 million.

In one short trip in February 2007, O’Callaghan, Fresch and a financial advisor flew first class to New York for a combined cost of more than $12,700. O’Callaghan and the financial advisor, Craig Underwood, each stayed only one night at the Ritz-Carlton, paying a nightly rate of more than $800.

Fresch, who stayed four nights, spent more than $7,600 at the Ritz-Carlton. The hefty bill included services from Paris Limo totaling $2,251 for four separate days. The city also reimbursed Fresch for $485 he spent dining at the Four Seasons New York.

The records show that Fresch routinely commuted from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lives, to L.A. first class for more than $931 per round trip. In a few instances, he spent more than $1,100 for the relatively short air commute. He also incurred a bill of $350 for the United Red Carpet Airport Club, according to one city invoice.

When asked to explain the expenses, Vernon Interim City Administrator Mark Whitworth issued a statement to The Times saying he has directed his staff to review whether a new expense and reimbursement policy is needed to “govern staff travel.”

As for Fresch’s travel expenses, Whitworth added: “Mr. Fresch maintains his residence in Northern California, and the city was aware of this and agreed to reimburse his travel.”

In a city where the few voters have depended on City Hall for their employment and housing and where the many business have supported local government, the travel expenses have nonetheless provoked anger.

“For a city employee to be traveling at that high standard of luxury on taxpayer dollars is highly offensive,” said Steve Freed, president of the Vernon Property Assn. “Many of the property and business owners in the city of Vernon are outraged that our hard-earned tax dollars are being used to support public officials traveling in such a luxurious manner.”

--Sam Allen and Hector Becerra