Orange County Transportation Authority officials debated Wednesday whether to let the agency’s board chairman and its finance director take a $10,900 business trip to Paris underwritten by a French company that contracts with OCTA to manage the 91 Express Lanes.
The company, Cofiroute France, has offered to reimburse the transit agency for expenses, thus saving OCTA money and circumventing state conflict-of-interest laws and gift restrictions that might apply had the company paid for the trip directly.
State law bars elected officials and certain government employees from receiving more than $340 a year in gifts from any source. The law does allow a donor to reimburse a public agency for expenses.
But at a meeting Wednesday of the OCTA’s Finance and Administration Committee, some board members questioned the deal’s propriety and whether it’s necessary to send two officials to France for at least 10 days to attend a conference and visit toll roads owned by Cofiroute.
“Two people going for a total of 22 days at about $500 every day seems like a lot,” said Chris Norby, a county supervisor and OCTA board member who does not sit on the committee. Noting that OCTA has a contract to pay Cofiroute $5 million a year to manage the 91 Express Lanes, he asked: “What influence are they looking for?”
Others said that though the trip might be warranted, the agency should not let a contractor pay the bill. “It’s not appropriate to accept a gift from a vendor with a $5-million contract that has the possibility of future extensions,” committee member Denis R. Bilodeau said. “OCTA should pay for the travel.”