WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – A top Washtenaw County official booked conference travel to Europe, reservations for a wellness retreat on the Caribbean coast and hotel stays exceeding $600 a night on at least four occasions using a government-issued credit card.

That’s according to an MLive/The Ann Arbor News review of more than two years of Mastercard statements and hundreds of pages of receipts associated with spending by county Racial Equity Officer Alize Asberry Payne.

County officials say some of those charges are now “under review.” The card usage has sparked changes in the county’s travel procedures, and has raised red flags with three county elected leaders.

“I am really dismayed, upset and a little angry because I am constantly aware that all of the money that we have at the county is the taxpayer’s money,” said Ann Arbor county Commissioner Katie Scott. “We clearly have to have more oversight when things like this are happening.”

Asberry Payne did not respond to attempts to contact her via phone, text message, Facebook or email, which included written questions.

Since the beginning of 2022, Asberry Payne charged more than $137,000 to her county card, records show, though that sum includes some shared meals and travel bookings for other county staffers and elected officials, as well as book orders on Amazon, catering charges for county events and other work-related expenses.

Between 2022 and March 2024, Asberry Payne used her county card for $18,186.82 in flights under her name, $25,577.97 in personal lodging charges at conferences and $5,904.46 in Uber rides, according to the review of credit card statements.

In 2022 and 2023, she crisscrossed the country — and in one case the Atlantic Ocean for a trip to Germany — for at least 18 conferences and events, racking up airline charges, Uber bills and invoices from four- and five-star hotels, receipts show.

This amounted to at least 80 days outside the county or in transit during the two years, according to a county travel summary document and the MLive/The Ann Arbor News review of credit card records and receipts, all obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The trips were for professional conferences or meetings, many with direct links to Asberry Payne’s job responsibilities, addressing racial and socioeconomic disparities within county government, the records show.

Read more: Nearing 4 years on the job, what is Washtenaw County’s racial equity officer up to?

But the receipts also include other non-conference charges, like a nearly $4,700 reservation for the “WELLTH Experience,” advertised online as a five-day stay in “luxury accommodations” with yoga, leadership coaching and other self-care activities for racial justice professionals in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, near Cancún.

Asberry Payne took an Uber to Detroit Metro Airport on the day the seaside retreat began, and another returning from the airport on the day it ended in April 2023, according to her county credit card receipts, which did not include an associated flight reservation.

County Administrator Gregory Dill said the event is “currently under review.”

He said the same for more than $1,000 in Uber rides charged to Asberry Payne’s card during a five-day Congressional Black Caucus Foundation conference in Washington, D.C. in September 2023.

Also “under review” are trips where Asberry Payne incurred hefty hotel bills, Dill said. That includes charges amounting to $816 a night at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C. for a five-day conference on diversity and employment law and a bill totaling $1,215 a night for her stay at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island during the 2023 Mackinac Policy Conference, the receipts show.

The county has issued invoices to Asberry Payne, as well as other staffers and county commissioners, for some charges that fell outside of county policy, Dill said, though he did not specify which charges.

“I think when you look at it in its totality, it looks excessive, and I can’t disagree with that,” Dill said of Asberry Payne’s credit card spending.

The county’s policy was so broadly written that much of the travel and expenses could still fall inside it, Dill said. Overseas travel isn’t prohibited, he said, and department heads do not require advance approval for trips.

Dill has requested Asberry Payne limit the amount of future travel. He declined to answer questions about any potential employee discipline related to the credit card charges, citing general county practice of not disclosing those steps publicly.

Asberry Payne is currently on leave from the county, Dill said, adding he could not comment on reasons for the absence. He would not say whether it was paid or unpaid.

Conference travel domestically and abroad troubles some commissioners

Hired in 2019 to lead the county’s newly-created Racial Equity Office, Asberry Payne sought out training and conference opportunities across the country, travel records show.

She attended events in Phoenix and Philadelphia with other county officials associated with the county’s participation in the Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice cohort, an effort to cut down on criminal justice charges that can trap residents in poverty, according to the documents.

Alize Asberry Payne, pictured at a public meeting in February 2019, was named Washtenaw County’s first racial equity officer on Thursday, July 11, 2019.

Asberry Payne also flew to annual membership meetings and conferences of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity in Portland and Phoenix, as well as a leadership summit at a resort in Pine Mountain, Georgia, where members of the national network of fellow government officials gathered, receipts and agendas show. At other events, she was a presenter.

With most of the travel taking place in 2022 and 2023, as COVID-19 restrictions were easing, it’s important to place the trips in the context of the racial justice work Asberry Payne was tasked with, said Ann Arbor county Commissioner Andy LaBarre. It is a new field of government highly dependent on sharing ideas and innovations with officials across the country, he said.

County leaders believe in the work, and want to support the Racial Equity Office, he said.

But the volume of travel is out of the norm for a county official across his more than a decade with the county, LaBarre said. “The overall aggregate amount I think has raised some red flags.”

Some of the spending took her abroad.

In October 2023, Asberry Payne and two staffers in her office flew to Berlin for the 2023 Othering and Belonging Conference, put on by an institute of the same name based at the University of California, Berkeley, records show.

“It is an equity driven discussion bringing together thousands of advocates, scholars, artists, youth leaders and philanthropists from around the world to illuminate powerful stories, the power of arts and culture and how to build more fair and inclusive societies,” she wrote on a county form documenting the trip.

The European sojourn in particular concerned some county leaders.

“The trips outside of the U.S. are especially frustrating to hear about,” said Ypsilanti Commissioner Annie Somerville. “We have serious problems we are trying to address as a board, like filling gaps in human services and increasing pay for employees that hold up this organization. It is totally inappropriate.”

Somerville said she struggled to understand why the racial equity officer attended so many conferences, while commissioners still lack direct answers for how the events benefited her office.

“How can you actually do your job if you’re away from work that much?” she said.

Charges spark changes to outdated travel policies

The spotlight on Asberry Payne’s credit card usage, some of which was first made public in March by the local online publication The Ann Arbor Independent, has led to changes in how county officials must plan and execute future trips.

“I take my role as a fiduciary very seriously. Because of the information that’s been brought to light, we’ve been looking more closely at some of those charges,” said county board Chair Justin Hodge. “As response to much of this, we do have the updated travel policy that was rolled out.”

The county board voted unanimously to institute the new policy, replacing one put in place and 2007, and updated corresponding procedures on May 1.

Officials have shifted to a model largely based on approving travel charges in advance, rather than reconciling credit card expenses after the fact, Dill said.

The new procedures limit meal reimbursements to the per diem rates set by the U.S. General Services Administration, require reimbursement if an employee uses a credit card in violation of the procedures and include a new section on ridesharing and taxis.

The documents obtained by MLive/The Ann Arbor News show Asberry Payne’s February 2024 trip to New Jersey for a symposium focused on reparations advocacy came with a “special travel expense report” that detailed daily per diem allowances in advance — one of only two such documents included in the records.

In April, Asberry Payne was scheduled to travel again to Europe, on a flight to Geneva, Switzerland, booked a month after returning from Berlin, credit card records show, to attend a United Nations forum on People of African Descent.

She never boarded the flight. It was canceled at his request, Dill said.

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