SAN ANTONIO – A KSAT 12 Defenders analysis of CPS Energy expense reports revealed exorbitant purchases costing the publicly owned utility thousands of dollars under the tenures of ex-executives.
The months-long analysis came after the Defenders obtained more than 4,300 pages of purchasing card expenditures of former Chief Operating Officer Fred Bonewell and former President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams. In October, Bonewell resigned days after the Defenders exposed past ethics and spending complaints against him, while Gold-Williams stepped down from her position with plans to leave the utility in 2022.
The purchases raise questions about how Gold-Williams and Bonewell ran the utility, sparking concern from public policy experts and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
In 2019, Bonewell’s purchasing card expenditures totaled $53,444.53, higher than the median household income in San Antonio that same year, according to U.S. Census data.
“There’s an absolute ratepayer scandal underway in San Antonio. I think the documents show nothing less,” said James Quintero, a policy director with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Despite having an annual salary well over $300,000, according to the most recently available figures from the utility, Bonewell was a prolific spender of the public’s money. He previously served as CPS Energy’s chief safety & security officer before he was promoted in June to the utility’s number two position.
‘Wining and dining on the public’s dime’
Expense sheets and receipts covering Bonewell’s tenure show that he often charged multiple meals a day or high-price meals to his company purchasing card, including:
- On a single day in November 2018, Bonewell charged breakfast at the Guenther House, lunch at the now-shuttered El Mirador and dinner at J. Alexander’s
- Bonewell ate (and expensed) at a North Side brunch spot called Snooze on more than 100 occasions, often multiple times per week
- A $683 meal at Saltgrass Steak House on the River Walk in April 2018 included the purchase of more than a dozen steaks. The meal was described as a safety kickoff thank you luncheon and was attended by various other CPS managers and directors, records show.
- A $378 expense at Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao
- Numerous high-price meals at various Paesano’s locations, costing taxpayers $704, $688 and $600
By contrast, CPS Energy rank and file staffers who took part in employee engagement meetings in July 2019 were fed hot dogs and chili purchased from Sam’s Club, according to purchasing records of an employee associated with Bonewell’s work duties.
“My big takeaway from this is that you have a small cadre of top officials who are wining and dining on the public dime and it’s costing San Antonio ratepayers money and it’s eroding public trust,” Quintero told the Defenders after viewing the records.
Beats by Dre headphones and a $700 drive to the airport
Bonewell’s records also show he routinely used a local luxury chauffeur service for rides to and from his home to San Antonio International Airport.
During a trip to the midwest in January 2019, Bonewell used a separate luxury chauffeur service to be driven from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Chicago Midway International Airport. The two-and-a-half-hour drive cost $729, records show.
A chief of staff over gas services used his purchasing card in April 2020 to buy Beats by Dre wireless earphones at a cost of $108, writing on the expense report that they were bought for Bonewell specifically. The expense sheet was later signed by Bonewell.
In late May 2020, Bonewell’s then-executive assistant filed an internal ethics complaint claiming the earphone purchase and others were intentionally hidden from other staff because “Bonewell knew his P-card was being watched,” records show.
The complaint led to no formal discipline against Bonewell, CPS Energy officials confirm.
“This is the most concerning part in my mind. So you have public officials who are engaged in extravagant expense, and I think that’s certainly cause for concern,” Quintero said. “But on a deeper level, you have these same officials engaged in behavior that looks like they’re circumventing processes and procedures in place to protect the public’s interests, right? You have a lot of scheming that seems to be happening here and I think that’s a fire that needs to be addressed.”
Ethics complaints over Bonewell’s ‘open-ended budget’
In 2019, the same year Bonewell’s work expenditures peaked, he was named in two other internal ethics complaints that specifically targeted his use of the purchasing card.
One complaint in Feb. 2019, which led to ethics coaching for Bonewell, expressed concerns about the number of lunches being charged by Bonewell.
A separate complaint filed that same year asked why Bonewell was permitted to have an “open-ended budget.”
The anonymous letter stated that Bonewell had “little concern for budget constraints while the rest of us are directed to have pot luck lunches, minimal training, reduced supplies, etc?”
The complaint was addressed by Gold-Williams having “direct conversations with Bonewell” but he was never formally disciplined, personnel records show.
Gold-Williams’ signature appeared near the top of Bonewell’s approved expense reports.
Bonewell was paid more than $80,000 on his final paycheck, a majority of which was for accrued vacation time, CPS Energy officials confirmed.
CPS Energy officials offered no response for this story, even after the Defenders provided a list of specific purchases we were examining.
Paula Gold-Williams’ spending includes $14,000 on luxury chauffeurs
Like Bonewell, Gold-Williams routinely used luxury chauffeurs while traveling on behalf of CPS Energy.
A travel receipt from December 2016 shows Gold-Williams used her purchasing card to be driven by a chauffeur from a Washington, D.C. hotel to Reagan National Airport. The trip, which covered less than seven miles, cost $225.
Gold-Williams, in all, used her purchasing card for more than $14,000 in luxury chauffeur fares, as she traveled extensively on behalf of the utility pre-pandemic.
The charges often totaled several hundred dollars per trip, depending on which city she was in and whether she made multiple stops before arriving at her destination, records show.
Gold-Williams used her purchasing card to make more than $9,700 in donations to outside organizations and the education fund for the children of a CPS Energy employee whose wife suddenly passed away.
The expenditures were covered by the utility, records show.
Additionally, Gold-Williams used the corporate card to charge close to $9,600 worth of flowers and gift baskets, before appearing to abandon the practice in August 2018.
Many of those purchases included gift messages suggesting they were made on behalf of Gold-Williams and the CPS Energy family, while some included no description at all, leaving it unclear whether those expenditures were personal or professional.
Mayor Nirenberg responds
“It is time to reign that in. And I believe in responsible stewardship of public resources and would expect any public employee to be respectful of ratepayers and behave as if they are spending the public’s money, because they are,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, an ex-officio member of CPS Energy’s board of trustees.
Nirenberg said the board will work with current utility leadership to try to prevent incidents like this from happening again.
“You would expect office expenses to be normal parts of operational needs of any business, but in terms of extravagant expenses being made using public resources, that is something that needs to stop,” said Nirenberg.
He said the search for a new CEO presents an opportunity to establish better spending procedures.
“All of these are red flags in my mind and they really suggest that some sort of official action is needed to curb bad behavior,” said Quintero.
Quintero did not have as big of an issue with the utility covering Gold Wiliams’ monthly membership dues to the Plaza Club, later renamed the Centre Club. The downtown business and social club bills itself as an exclusive meeting place for prominent business and civic leaders.
Records show monthly dues for the club, including lower prorated amounts during the pandemic, were charged to Gold-Williams’ purchasing card along with annual contributions to the club’s holiday gift fund.
“So it’s not uncommon for governmental entities to provide their top officials with compensation to be part of various trade associations or clubs and whatnot. I don’t think it’s the proper use of public money, but it’s not entirely unheard of,” said Quintero.
CPS officials did not say whether the utility had been fully reimbursed for various trips for Gold-Williams later canceled due to the pandemic.
Complete pages of many of Gold-Williams’ expense sheets were redacted before being released by the utility earlier this year. The records were redacted to protect proprietary third-party information, including agendas and meeting minutes, an attorney for CPS Energy told the Defenders last month.