Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dowe resigns over travel expenses

The Roanoke Times obtained documents showing the councilman charged taxpayers twice for some items.

alfred dowe

Roanoke Times | File photo

Former Roanoke City Councilman Alfred Dowe resigned yesterday after being confronted with evidence that he billed both the city and the state for the same government-related trips he took to Richmond last year.

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The documents (PDFs)

June 13-14, 2007: Criminal Justice Services Board meeting

Sept. 7, 2007: CJSB meeting

Sept. 12-14, 2007: CJSB meeting

Nov. 28-29, 2007: CJSB meeting

Dec. 12-13, 2007: CJSB meeting



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From the Datasphere:

What's next

  • An audit of Roanoke City Council spending on meals and travel, along with a review of policies, will continue. Mayor Nelson Harris said that even though Dowe has resigned, the questions his spending raised still need to be resolved.
  • Alfred Dowe's seat will be added to the May 6 general election. Unlike the three open seats, it will be for only a two-year term. It's still unclear how the Roanoke city registrar will qualify candidates for the special election.
  • In the meantime, the six remaining city council members will appoint someone to serve until July 1, when the newly elected members take office.

Alfred Dowe's career

  • Alfred Dowe was a 35-year-old banker and Roanoke Planning Commission member when he first won election to the Roanoke City Council in 2002, polling just 399 votes behind top vote-getter Nelson Harris in a nine-way municipal election.
  • In February 2003, Dowe led the city council toward its decision to renovate and rename the First Street bridge for Martin Luther King Jr., ending a long-running controversy.
  • Dowe broke from the Democratic Party in 2006 to run as part of the independent "For the City" slate of city council candidates. The election was fought mainly over Victory Stadium and city schools; the three independents were the only candidates in a field of 10 to support the demolition of Victory Stadium and construction of separate stadiums at the city’s high schools. The three swept the election, becoming the first independent ticket to win since 1976. Dowe finished third in the race for three seats.
  • Later in 2006, Dowe organized a youth summit in the wake of a shooting that injured several people, killed one and raised anew questions of whether Roanoke has street gangs. The meeting attracted several hundred participants, many of them teenagers, who talked about what Roanoke should be doing to help its young people.
  • Dowe has been a mentor for the National Basketball Association, helping young players who move straight from high school to professional ball in either the NBA or its development league. He started mentoring about the same time he was first elected to the city council.
  • In 2003, Dowe's purchase of a piece of land in Northwest Roanoke prompted frequent council critic E. Duane Howard to request an investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Dowe paid $11,500 for a lot in a housing project designed to blend low-income and regular market-rate buyers. Dowe's father served on the board of the housing corporation that was selling the land. HUD cleared Dowe of any conflict of interest.

Confronted with evidence that he billed taxpayers twice for some of the nearly $15,000 he spent last year on meals and travel, Roanoke Councilman Alfred Dowe has resigned.

"I humbly offer my resignation from Roanoke City Council effective today," Dowe wrote in a letter to Mayor Nelson Harris, a copy of which Harris released Saturday.

Dowe's downfall began just three days ago, when it was revealed that he used his city-issued credit card to run up a tab of $14,604.03 on meals, travel and lodging last year. While Dowe insisted the expenses were related to city business, the fact that they accounted for nearly half of the city council's total spending on travel and meals prompted Harris to request an investigation by the municipal auditor.

Then, late Friday afternoon, documents obtained by The Roanoke Times added a new twist to one of the biggest scandals to hit city hall in recent years.

Expense vouchers show that Dowe billed both the city and the state for the same costs associated with five trips he took to Richmond last year to attend meetings of the Department of Criminal Justice Services, a state agency for which he is a board member.

On three occasions, Dowe used his city credit card to pay for an overnight stay at a Holiday Inn in Richmond -- only to later submit the same hotel bill to the state in seeking travel reimbursement as a DCJS board member, the documents show.

Dowe also billed the city for rental cars he drove to Richmond -- only to later submit mileage claims to the state as he would for using his personal car, according to the expense reports, which the newspaper requested under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Counting a trip to Staunton for a board meeting there, Dowe received $1,393.61 in state reimbursement, the documents show. At the same time, he billed city taxpayers $1,929.03 for attending DCJS meetings.

In an interview Saturday, Harris said it was only after city officials learned of the information obtained by the newspaper that he called Dowe on Friday night and summoned him to his house for what turned out to be a tearful, two-hour talk at his kitchen table.

"As the conversation unfolded, and I would have to say it was a painful conversation, I told him I felt like he needed to resign from council, and he agreed," Harris said.

Harris declined to get into the details of what Dowe -- who for two days had been defending his expenditures -- told him that night.

"The reason that I asked for his resignation from the council will be clear once the audit is finalized," Harris said.

But the sequence of events that unfolded Friday afternoon suggests that it was the expense vouchers Dowe submitted to DCJS that brought a sudden end to the short-lived scandal.

After receiving the documents, which do not clearly confirm that Dowe actually received the state money that he asked for, The Roanoke Times showed them to City Attorney Bill Hackworth.

Almost immediately, Hackworth called Harris. The mayor cut short a dinner engagement and called Dowe's cellphone. "Alfred, we need to talk," he said he told Dowe, asking Dowe to meet him at his home that night.

Eventually, they reached an agreement that Dowe should step down immediately from a council position he has held since 2002. Using the mayor's home computer, Dowe typed out his resignation letter and signed it before leaving.

Dowe wrote in the letter: "It has been my extreme pleasure serving the community that I love and it is in that spirit, given the recent events, that I choose not [to] be a distraction to the progress of the city. ...

"My foremost priority is the well-being of my family and that is the main reason why I am tendering my resignation at this time."

Reached later in the day, Dowe released a brief written statement. "I fully understand that the issues reported will legitimately be examined and I will cooperate with such examination," it read.

Even with Dowe's stepping down, Harris said it's important to follow through on two requests he made Thursday: an investigation by the municipal auditor of meal and travel spending by all members of the council, and a review of the policies that govern such expenditures.

"My fear is that council will be shaded by the actions of one, and I certainly want to make every effort to prevent that," Harris said.

One council member said Dowe's spending is the biggest scandal to hit city hall since a controversy in 1992 that involved the council's approval of a lucrative "two-for-one" retirement bonus that doubled the amount of its members' city pensions.

"It has touched off a firestorm of reaction, more than I've seen in a long time," Brian Wishneff said. "People are really upset about it."

While Dowe's political career is over, he could still face other consequences.

Although he has not been consulted about the case, Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell said Saturday that the circumstances as he understood them could constitute criminal charges.

"Absolutely, it could qualify as a criminal offense if he's seeking reimbursement from two entities, because he's defrauding one or the other," Caldwell said. Under that scenario, possible charges would include embezzlement or obtaining money by false pretenses.

But the mere potential for criminal charges doesn't mean they are a certainty, the prosecutor added. Other factors, such as the amount of money involved, could be taken into consideration. Reimbursement to the city, which Harris said is likely to be a factor in this case, could also play a role in the decision on whether to file charges.

If the case is referred to Caldwell, he said he would ask for a special prosecutor because of his personal relationship with Dowe, who interned in his office as both a high school and college student.

The city has yet to notify any law enforcement officials, Harris said, and likely will not make that decision until the investigation by municipal auditor Drew Harmon is completed. That's expected to take about 45 days.

Meanwhile, members of the city council reacted with shock to the news.

"I'm just disheartened it came down to this," said Vice Mayor David Trinkle, who successfully campaigned alongside Dowe as part of the independent "For the City" ticket in 2006. "Alfred is a very dedicated council member. He always seems to bring a bright mood and spirit to the process. ... This is an unfortunate error in judgment."

Efforts to reach the director of the state Department of Criminal Justice Services for comment about Dowe's spending were unsuccessful Saturday.

Roanoke County Police Chief Ray Lavinder, who serves on the board with Dowe, said he had not heard the news. "I've always enjoyed working with him," Lavinder said of Dowe. "I just don't know what else to say."

Until Friday, it seemed possible that Dowe might survive the political storm surrounding his spending -- or at the very least ride it out a little longer.

When the news first broke on Thursday, he adamantly defended the $14,604.03 he spent last year on restaurant tabs, banquets, hotel bills, rental cars, airfare, conferences and meals that he shared with guests. All of the expenses, Dowe said, related to city business and were a direct result of his attempts to become a more active leader in the community.

Much of the money was spent on attending out-of-state conferences, Dowe said.

Yet more than $2,000 in taxpayer funds went for meals, at least 60 of them in local restaurants where Dowe treated a guest. The list of people who shared a breakfast, lunch or dinner with the councilman included city employees, council colleagues, business leaders, architects, engineers, lawyers, bankers, school board members and officials with nonprofit agencies.

In interviews earlier this month, some of those people said they dined over a discussion of legitimate city issues. But one guest said the conversation was more of a sales pitch by Dowe for his insurance business -- and a critique of their respective golf games.

Staff writer Mason Adams contributed to this report.

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