California bullet train agency can’t document details of officials’ foreign trips
Officials directing the California High-Speed Rail Authority have taken a series of overseas trips paid for by foreign governments jockeying to help their homeland firms win contracts on the multibillion-dollar project.
And the rail agency has been unable to document the costs, sponsors or other details of the trips as generally required by state ethics regulations.
Several board members and the former executive director took tours of train systems in Spain, France or Germany last year, according to interviews and records.
Most of the trips are not required to be publicly reported as gifts to individual officials, according to board members. That’s because they were given to the authority itself and then allotted to board members and staff. Under state ethics rules, that shifts the public disclosure duty to the authority.
But high-speed rail officials could not produce any accounting of the donated travel and failed to post details about the trips on the authority’s website. Such reports, describing who paid for the trips, who took them, the itineraries and breakdowns of travel, lodging, meals and other expenses, are required for travel gifts to agencies. The authority also could not find invitation letters indicating who offered the trips.
The lapses call into question how diligently the authority has adhered to ethics rules as it pushes to begin building an initial, $43-billion bullet train linking Anaheim, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Groundbreaking is planned for 2012, and the full network to Sacramento and San Diego would be among the biggest public works projects in state history.
Rail agency officials say the overseas trips provide valuable information on complex bullet train issues at no cost to California taxpayers. If recordkeeping fell short in the process, the former head of the agency said, it was unintentional and more likely a reflection of the authority’s small staff and limited operating budget.
Some government watchdogs say rigorously following disclosure standards is crucial to maintaining public confidence in a controversial project that could be a magnet for bidders from around the globe. Already, the project is slated to receive more than $12 billion in federal and state funds in the next few years.
Authority leaders “need to err on the side of transparency,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonpartisan political reform group. “Any issue of a gray area, they should disclose,” including all gifts and trips, she said. “There’s nothing that should be worth hiding.”
Roman Porter, executive director of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces ethics laws, declined to comment on the authority specifically. But he said donated travel outside the United States, including gifts by foreign governments, is required to be disclosed annually by officials taking the trip or, within 30 days of receipt of the gift, by the officials’ agency. George Spanos, the authority’s legal advisor and a deputy attorney general for California, declined to comment.
More than five years ago, authority officials were planning a trip to Japan, partly underwritten by a consortium of Japanese rail companies. The officials asked the FPPC for advice and received information on the basic requirement to document donated trips, records show.
Two years ago, disclosure rules were strengthened to include a more thorough and easily accessible online accounting of gifts directed to agencies.
Last year’s European trips were taken by authority Chairman Curt Pringle and board members Quentin Kopp, Lynn Schenk and Tom Umberg, interviews show. Former Executive Director Mehdi Morshed joined board members on two of the trips.
Officials said the trips, which typically lasted several days, included airfare and lodging, sessions with government officials, rides on high-speed trains and meetings with potential equipment suppliers and operating contractors. “Generally, they work you like a dog,” said Morshed, who left the agency in March.
Pringle said accepting such trips is appropriate. “I think it’s important to have knowledge of high-speed rail and how it operates. I chose to visit [France and Germany last year] on their invitation, and I may visit others.”
Kopp, who went to Spain and Germany, and Schenk, who traveled to Spain, both stressed that they were not required to personally disclose the trips as gifts. Schenk — an attorney, former congresswoman and prominent figure in state government — said she has a policy of not accepting personal gifts and used her airline miles for airfare. Umberg, a former federal prosecutor and state legislator who likewise went to Spain, also noted that his trip was donated to the authority. He said he did not know its value.
Kopp, a former state senator and judge, said he assumed the authority had properly documented the travel.
Without records, it is unclear how many officials have taken donated trips in recent years or where they went. Neither are the amounts paid by donors evident nor, in some cases, is who picked up the bill.
“We never asked, ‘Who’s paying for it?’ ” said Morshed, recalling a trip he took to France a few years ago arranged by the French Consulate.
A few trips are reflected in agency records. Pringle, who as mayor of Anaheim must comply with stricter gift disclosure requirements because he is an elected official, filed reports that include trips he received last year.
A six-day trip to Germany was worth $13,000, Pringle reported. A four-day trip to France was valued at $4,800. That trip was provided by the “French Republic,” according to the report.
A French government spokesman said most of the trip was funded by SNCF, the French national railroad company that operates high-speed trains. The company, owned by the French government, has been positioning itself to compete for part of the California project.
“They are just waiting for the call” to submit proposals, said Jacques de Noray, a French Consulate official in San Francisco.
Last month, authority Deputy Executive Director Jeffrey Barker and the project’s new chief executive, Roelof van Ark, joined Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on an Asia trip, partly intended to encourage high-speed rail builders to bid on California’s project.
Barker said his trip was partly underwritten by government agencies in China, Japan and South Korea. An accounting of the trips was being finalized last week, after Times inquiries.
Authority officials have said they are working to increase transparency and recently upgraded the agency’s website.
“There was no attempt there to hide” any information on the trips, Morshed said.
But he also said the agency struggled for years with a small staff and budget. Trips offered by outside interests were the only viable way to gain first-hand knowledge on bullet trains, he said.
“I was mainly trying to figure out how to build a high-speed train,” he said, and that included seeking information from “anyone that was going to show me.”