County Official Investigated for ‘Inappropriate Travel Payment’

The head of Santa Clara County's Department of Child Support Services (DCSS) was placed on paid leave after reports that he used personal charge cards to rack up rewards and frequent flier miles from county business trips.

NBC's Investigative Unit obtained thousands of documents that show John Vartanian broke county policy by using his credit cards for himself and dozens of other staffers to earn rewards.

"The Board of Supervisors takes these allegations seriously and has placed Vartanian on administrative leave with pay," county spokeswoman Gwen Mitchell announced in a press release Tuesday night.

Vartanian, who was appointed as department head last year, put upward of $55,000 in hotel costs and registration fees on his credit cards since 2008, according to NBC. He apparently paid for travel of at least 30 employees, even for conferences he never attended.

NBC even found footage from another news station of Vartanian at a conference for people looking for tips on how to earn more travel rewards. The practice of charging Vartanian's card became so routine that someone placed a new line item on expense reports to note that the expense was paid by him.

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County police states that frequent flyer credits earned by county employees for travel on the county dime "should be applied toward future county travel." It further notes that frequent flyer miles are a taxable fringe benefit and that the county "has no intention to provide such fringe benefits."

Vartanian has worked for the county for 13 years. Eight of those he spent as the Chief Attorney before being appointed by the Board of Supervisors to his current post in 2013.

Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos will provide oversight for the DCSS in Vartanian's absence.

Here's the announcement from the county:

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Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Amazing…. Why did it take the County so long to figure this out? I thought they reviewed the P-Card and expense report policy with the whole Shirakawa scandal. This guy was appointed AFTER GS was prosecuted. Not only that, he is on PAID administrative leave? By the time they are finished with the investigation he will be ready for paid retirement and will quietly slip away? PAID ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE?

    • He was turned in for this almost 4 YEARS AGO, Jeff Smith passed the “investigation” down to one of Vartanian’s buddies who was the director at the time – NO WRONG DOING WAS FOUND.. of course NOT, the buddy was may have been benefiting from the scam as well! He thought he would never be caught, well now the s%$^ has really hit the fan.. I hope ALL of the people who benefited from this crap, and there are several, all go down in all possible ways – Vartanian is a licensed lawyer – shame shame. People like him are what give Lawyers a bad name.

  2. This is common in the private sector, so maybe that’s why I don’t understand why this is an issue, let alone a story. Last year the company I worked for had me pay for my own travel, and reimbursed me after I submitted my receipts.

    If it’s on a pcard, sure, the county can keep the miles, but if I have to extend my personal credit to my employer, I’m gonna keep those miles for myself.

    • If a private employer wants to allow its employees to keep their travel benefits, they have the leeway to do that, but these are public tax dollars. We’re already paying for this guy’s salary, medical benefits, pension, what have you — allowing him to rack up as many travel benefits as he can, additionally, threatens the public transparency of his compensation.

    • He apparently paid for travel of at least 30 employees, even for conferences he never attended.

      He got greedy. When you start paying for other employees, then you’re stealing from them too.

    • Vartanian did a big no-no and he knew it but this story is a lot bigger than it is being presented here. He could not process his own paperwork. Someone had to do it for him. A lot of times. And knowingly accept modified forms. This circle of corruption is at least as big as with Shirakawa.
      The county has reached rock bottom. I’ve been with the county for 30 years and I’ve never seen it as bad as under executive Smith. SJI could easily change its name its name to SCCI. Smith keeps hiring and firing health department financial officers and everything is always hush hush. Almost every department has a failed audit they’re hiding. The amount of money screwed up is staggering. You got executives who live out of town but stay in SJ hotels every week on county dime. A lot of department heads have their kids working for them. You make noise and you get exiled to whatever office farthest from your house. It is freaking Soviet Russia.
      Sorry Cortese but I can’t vote for your cousin. He justs sits there in his expensive suits while Putin Smith does his things. He’s had years and either he is clueless or in on the take.

      • Sorry Cortese but I can’t vote for your cousin. No need to apologize :) You bring up some good points of conversation, but none of it actually relates to anything my cousin has done. Has my cousin ever hired family? Has my cousin ever exiled anyone for being a whistleblower? Does he have anyone in his direct employ that is guilty of anything you described?

      • You are right on about it being done a LOT of times… and MOST employees never knew about it. It was reported to the County almost 4 YEARS ago – but when the investigation is passed down to that current Director to look into, AND the two of them are friends OUTSIDE the office, and possibly the person investigating the matter 4 yrs ago knew about and possibly was ALSO gaining travel perks, of course it was found that there was no wrong doing!

        There HAS to be others involved for a COUNTY FORM to be altered to include reimbursement to Vartanian!!! SOMEONE added that line, and it was not Vartanian! Note that this form would ALSO be forwarded to the financial department located on Hedding – Those forms are approved by at least two others in each department and then sent to Hedding.

        I hope ALL are exposed and dealt with who have known and profited from this THEFT and MISUSE of COUNTY FUNDS and the TAX PAYORS – That office is fully funded by federal and California state tax dollars, so this matter affects ALL OF US!!! The IRS, FTB, and the CA State Bar Association (Vartanian HAS an ACTIVE Bar license to practice LAW!) This is easy to look up on the internet.

  3. John is not a criminal in any way. It is possible that he was not aware of any wrongdoing. As stated in the article people changed financial forms. This may have given him a scence of no wrongdoing. With so many different officials changing and giving an ok to the changes in financial forms who wouldn’t. Yes he is an attorney but not in financial criminal law. Whistle blowers are at times vindictive people who have no real proof of any wrongdoing. DCSS in SCC has a history of hating men, especially men in power. In time I believe John will be exonerated and should get engraved apologies from so many. Look into the shady past and people of this morally bankrupt meat grinder. There are some great people in this office but they are most often shut down by intimidation and indirect threats. I wish John all the best as he is dragged to Salem by real misanthrope’s.

  4. How are the taxpayers out any money here? Does the County have a frequent flyer account or a hotel loyalty card? Sure the expenses could have gone on the P card and points used to buy more office supplies at Staples, but it takes a LOT of points to get a reward. For example, my rewards credit card will give me a 25.00 gift card for every 25,000.00 I charge.

    All the other people “involved” with this except for the former director were told to accept the practice. They had NO CHOICE other than to go ahead with the process. They could have kept records about their displeasure but being disclipined for not following orders was probably not worth it as they have families that rely on their paycheck.
    I really don’t think there were altered forms. Receipts were produced and reimbursement made.

    There’s no question he was selfish to not let others use their frequent flyer program or the hotel loyalty cards, but to say he cost the taxpayer money is totally inaccurate. What he did was to take advantage of employee travel for his own personal benefit.

  5. I am leaving this comment anonymously but non the less mr.john vartanian did some very good things with those earned county points. My husband who is now deceased had a very difficult ex wife unwilling to bend.anywhere she could throw a wrench in the relationship between my husband and his son.violating orders, moving out of the county etc.john vartanian interviewed my husband extensively and found her explanations for her behavior to be complete nonsense.For the sake of trying to save a father son relationship John gave my husband and myself accommodations at a hotel in order to have time with my husband’s son.we were in a position where financially our living situation was that of living in a travel trailer and paying space rent at the Santa Clara County husband’s ex wife did not want visitation to take place there nor at my husband’s parents nor at my John came up with an alternative that I believe she perceived as the final word.we were sent there once a month for at least six months.This did help my husband to have some hope .There are many who judge others for things that they really know nothing about.If he helped one father to reunite and feel like part of his child’s life I believe that any of the self centered whistle blowers are not in the line of work to help families as was Mr John vartanian.they simply are winning that they think he spent it on himself.Shane on you.He is one of the kindness men to date I have ever met.

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