BY KELLI PEACOCK DUNN
Thousand dollar shopping sprees at Pier Park. Hotel rooms at over $200 a pop. A reservation for a junket to Vegas. These were among the questionable expenses addressed at the Liberty County School Board meeting Tuesday night.
Board Chair Kyle Peddie presented an alarming report about alleged expenditures made by Liberty County School Superintendent Gay Uzzell who took office in January.
Peddie stated he had no idea the school district even had credit cards, but recently learned Uzzell had obtained one from a local bank with a $10,000 limit. He then discovered the balance is at $12,183 with interest and fees mounting.
Extended hotel stays raised quite a few questions, with board members clueless as to what conferences she was attending on all of the dates when lodging was booked. Records indicate:
* Uzzell attended a conference in Tallahassee scheduled for March 13 through March 15. Rather than drive the 45 minutes home each night, she opted to stay over at the Doubletree at a charge of $209 per night. In addition, she stayed beyond the conference for an additional five days, checking out on March 20 with a hotel bill totalling $2093. This amount included the room rate, as well as room service charges for beer, food, and tips.
* Upon checking out of the Doubletree, Uzzell reportedly headed for Jacksonville for a stay at the Hyatt Regency that lasted from March 21 through March 25 at a cost of $185 per night, plus a $20 per day valet service charge. Beer and food purchases were on the credit card, including a $52 breakfast of filet mignon, eggs and French toast. The bill totalled $1097.
* From the Hyatt in Jacksonville, Uzzell stopped off again in Tallahassee and stayed at The Loft, running up a $710 bill.
* The next trip was April 16-20 when Uzzell returned to the Doubletree in Tallahassee, spending $1051.
* A $300 reservation for an upcoming trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, was also found on the credit card.
Among the other purchases listed on bank statements for Uzzell’s school district-funded credit card:
* Over $1000 at Chico’s and Ultra in Pier Park
* $1015 at Dillards
* $178 for another Dillards purchase
* $341 at Stein Mart
* $524 for a computer case
* $93 for an exercise video
* $49 at Cost Cutters
* Food purchases at Logan’s Roadhouse and Genghis
* Several gas purchases
Peddie noted the May statement has not yet arrived.
Uzzell said the hotel charges were a mix up. In the first trip to the Doubletree, she said she stayed over after the conference to lobby legislators, but told the hotel she would personally pay for those nights. She said the Jacksonville trip was for a Teachscape conference. She stated all the hotels were instructed to split the nights so she could pay for her personal expenses, but the hotels failed to do so. “I didn’t realize until I got the statement,” she remarked. “I don’t know why they can’t split the bill.”
Peddie responded, “Amazing. Three hotels all screwed up.”
He reported he had visited Doubletree to investigate expenses and met with employees who never mentioned any mix up. However, he has learned Uzzell went back to the hotel two weeks ago to pay $2093 in cash to have the charges taken off the credit card for the March trip. He added that she should be required to pay the state the 12-1/2 percent tax on the rooms that was waived when she rented on the premise they were for the school district.
Uzzell said the Vegas trip was for a safety conference, but she had cancelled it. She said several of the other charges were the result of her not wearing her eyeglasses at the checkout and accidentally using the school district card as opposed to her personal credit card. She said she returned the items to Stein Mart and claimed the Dillards merchandise was all for office purchases, but she also took those back to the store.
Uzzell insisted the tax payers had never paid for her beer purchases at hotels. Peddie disagreed, explaining that when a credit card is swiped, the charges are immediately paid to the hotel, retail store or any other business by the bank. The bank then bills the school district, thus, the tax payers were billed for her beer purchases and other items.
Peddie asked Uzzell about the purchase at Cost Cutters and she replied, “It was for shampoo and scissors.”
“For what?” he inquired.
“I’m not going into that,” she responded, adding that she had been badgered for an hour and wasn’t discussing it any further.
Chairman Peddie noted that Liberty County resident Kevin Peddie previously made a public records request to the school board office for the bank statements on the credit cards, but did not receive the April statement. He said the purchases at Pier Park on the statement that was provided to Kevin Peddie had been crossed out with a pen. Chairman Peddie reminded Uzzell that all public records must be provided in full when requested by anyone and it is illegal to alter them. Explanations are allowable, but nothing can be deleted.
Chairman Peddie added that the April statement was also missing when he made his request for the records. He then went to the bank and obtained the April statement that contained the questionable purchases.
As of Tuesday night, the credit card bill had not yet been paid to the bank.
“This bothers me as a school board member, as a parent and as a taxpayer,” Peddie remarked, adding, “This is not how we do business here and I think it's against the law.”
Peddie demanded his signature stamp be returned. “If you need my signature on a check, you can bring it to me.”
Board member Roger Reddick stated, "If the law has been broken, we need to turn this over to officials."
Sources indicate the matter has been forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office to review.
The County Record had already gone to press when the Liberty County School Board met Tuesday evening and is sharing this story as an online exclusive. Watch for more details in our print edition next week.