Mayor's Money Move: Budget Transfer or "Money Laundering"? 

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A payment of nearly $77,000 to a Washington, D.C.-based accounting firm is the latest revelation in an ongoing saga of mismanagement and questionable spending practices by Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's office.

The payment comes to light in the midst of a City Council investigation into Wilder's failed eviction of the Richmond Public School Board from City Hall in September.

The check was written to the audit and accounting firm of Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates on Nov. 14. It was the single largest payout from the $500,000 that administration officials surreptitiously transferred from an account designated to pay for Hurricane Ernesto relief.

Wilder officials had moved that $500,000 into an empty budget line they designated "Interim Transition Costs New Government." They used that money toward the aborted move -- and on an undisclosed but separate project awarded it to the accounting firm.

After paying moving companies, painters, carpet companies and other vendors associated with the Sept. 21 School Board move, the balance in the account had dwindled to $96,500.

The nearly $77,000 payment was unrelated, says Harry Black, whose leadership during the move is also a focus of a City Council investigation. "Ah, no, that's not related," he tells Style Weekly. Black deferred further questions to the city's media relations office, which did not reply to requests by press time.

Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates is the same out-of-state firm that Black hired early last year using an emergency procurement contract to audit the city assessor's office at a cost of about $250,000. At Wilder's directive, Black also attempted to engage the firm in a similar (ultimately thwarted) emergency audit of the School Board.

At the time, City Council members questioned the administration's assertion that it was unable to go through the normal procurement process.

The most recent questionable payment to Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio may have gone to pay for its services related to establishing the Richmond Works citizen accountability program, Style has learned.

"It just seems to me that regardless of the merits of the expenditure, it wasn't authorized," says Councilman Chris Hilbert, who chairs the committee investigating the School Board eviction. "We've all come to the conclusion that the school eviction was a complete waste of money."

Administration officials contend they have the authority to shift funds between accounts at will. City Council President Bill Pantele has a term for it: "money laundering."

"Based on what we know now," Pantele says, "members of the administration essentially appropriated a dead account and filled it with money and used those monies as they saw fit — thus circumventing the processes of the public procurement act."

An opinion from the city attorney's office has dismissed the administration's contention that it has authority to reappropriate funds budgeted for specific uses, citing the City Charter as prohibiting such transfers without proposing a budget amendment that would then require council approval.

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