CHESTER -- Some of former Chester Mayor Wanda Stringfellow's travel expenses appear "extravagant," a recently released city audit shows.
Stringfellow, now chairwoman of the Chester County Democratic Party, adamantly denies she misused public funds and claims the auditors' findings are the latest phase of a "witchhunt" aimed at tarnishing her reputation.
"To say that it was 'extravagant,'" Stringfellow said, "I don't understand why that particular choice of words was used, except it is an attempt to make me look bad."
The audit, which was presented to the Chester City Council last week, covers the fiscal year ending in June 2005. It is one of several backlogged audits that leaders say wasn't finished earlier because of the city's disorganized financial records.
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Questions about the former mayor's travels stem from conferences Stringfellow attended in Columbus, Ohio, and New Orleans. The audit doesn't offer specific dates for the trips.
The only record of a plane ticket for the Ohio trip was an internal form asking that $1,110.90 be paid to the airline. "This appears extravagant for any domestic destination," the audit states.
The audit doesn't indicate if Stringfellow, 44, flew first class.
A form authorizing the payment wasn't signed by the mayor, city administrator or any member of City Council.
The New Orleans conference was documented only by an expense report and a MapQuest map showing the distance of the trip. The mileage reimbursement, $599.92, appears to be considerably more expensive than a plane ticket and cab fare would have been, according to the audit.
The city administrator did approve the reimbursement for this trip, which included four dinners costing $47 each.
When asked about her travels, Stringfellow maintained the trips were to conferences sponsored by the National Conference of Black Mayors. Stringfellow once served on the organization's board of directors.
City Council approved her travel budget and paid for her membership in the organization, she said. She insists she didn't book her trips, but submitted the required paperwork and told the finance department where the conferences were being held.
That department, specifically former finance director Harriett Tillinger, made her travel arrangements, Stringfellow said.
"I followed the same procedures as any other city employee would follow," she said. "It wasn't like I just went out and decided, 'Oh, I'm gonna take this flight because it's the most expensive.'"
But Tillinger, who was hired in late 2004, said that's not the case. She said she didn't have the authority to approve the mayor's travel plans.
"I didn't have any part of it," Tillinger said, adding she never booked travel for anyone at the city of Chester.
Determining who scheduled which trip is a problem because no records exist that provide such information, said Barbara Swierszcz, the city's current finance director.
Swierszcz (pronounced Swee-zee) said Tillinger wouldn't have had the power to book those trips. She said the city tightened its travel guidelines long before she was hired to replace Tillinger last year. Those rules require more documentation for out-of-town trips.
Stringfellow served as Chester's mayor for eight years, losing her seat to Mitch Foster in 2007. She was elected chair of the county's Democratic Party in March.
She insists she followed the city's rules throughout her travels, including meals. Although she doesn't recall what she ate on those trips, she said the city gave her a daily allowance and no law prohibits her from skipping breakfast and lunch to eat a $47 dinner.
The conferences were a necessity to becoming a better leader, she said, and the recent allegations are just an effort to discredit her service.
"There has been an ongoing attempt just to smear the leadership that I provided to this community," she said. "This was a campaign, a witchhunt, that began a few years ago, and evidently, someone still feels like they need to have some vendetta with me. I have done nothing but try to provide this community with good, progressive leadership."
Stringfellow thinks she knows who is behind the "witchhunt," but she said she won't identify those people because she didn't need "to go to that level at this point."
But some city leaders don't believe any type of movement to taint Stringfellow exists.
"That is not true," City Councilwoman Linda Tinker said of Stringfellow's claims.
Tinker, who chairs the city's finance committee, said many of Chester's problems with financial records stem from turnover at the positions of finance director and city administrator. She hopes subsequent audits will reflect improvements.
"The records had just gotten so screwed up that it's just taken this long to get them back together," she said. "We're on a brand-new system now. Everybody's on the same page."