Watchdog group alleges conflicts of interest on high-speed rail board
Critics of California’s high-speed rail project Tuesday urged the state attorney general to investigate whether two prominent officials in Los Angeles County and Anaheim have conflicts of interest because they sit on the bullet train’s board while holding other public offices.
A Palo Alto group known as Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design asserts that Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and Richard Katz, a board member for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, might be violating a state law that forbids public officials from simultaneously sitting on a board, commission or other government body whose interests are likely to clash with their public duties.
The group cited an opinion from the Legislature’s legal office, which concluded in April that a court would probably rule that Katz and Pringle hold incompatible offices — a finding that could force them to resign one or more of their positions.
Anaheim City Council members and the MTA board make decisions related to segments of the high-speed rail project planned for Los Angeles and Orange counties. A leg of the system would end in Anaheim.
Pringle, who chairs the High-Speed Rail Authority board, also is a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority board. Katz sits on the boards of the MTA and Metrolink, the commuter rail line that serves six counties. Those agencies are involved in the high-speed rail project as well.
“Local office and service on the high-speed rail board just don’t mix,” said Elizabeth Alexis, a co-founder of the watchdog group. “The biggest problem is maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the process. The project needs to be not just clean. It needs to be squeaky clean.”
Alexis pointed to recent concerns expressed by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee, which is overseeing the $42-billion project that would run from Anaheim to Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Last spring, Lowenthal’s committee looked into a proposed deal — backed by Pringle — to use $200 million in high-speed rail money to complete a huge, canopied transportation center next to Angel Stadium at the southern terminus of the bullet train’s first phase.
Lowenthal said it looked like parochial interests were getting priority over statewide interests. After the committee hearing, the High-Speed Rail Authority dropped the idea.
Quentin Kopp, a former judge who sits on the high-speed rail board, has also questioned the positions held by Katz and Pringle.
Pringle, who will be termed out as Anaheim mayor by the end of the year, said the incompatible office question “is a gray area.” He says there is only speculation at this point of a disqualifying conflict between the interests of the local agencies he represents and the High-Speed Rail Authority.
Katz, a former state legislator and experienced transportation official, said that the Legislative Counsel’s opinion was merely the advice of one legal office and that he was seeking a review by other attorneys. He stressed that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to the high-speed rail board “to bring a local transportation agency viewpoint to it.”
Before he and Pringle joined the panel, Katz said, the bullet train authority “operated in this vacuum without a lot of concern for local issues and community concerns.” He said it “could doom the project” if local officials who could help integrate the line with other projects had to resign.
The watchdog group says the attorney general’s office has an obligation to investigate the matter, but has failed to do so.
In a July letter, the attorney general’s office notified the High-Speed Rail Authority that some members of its board held other public offices. The letter said it was unclear whether any of the positions were incompatible.
“We believe that the board members are taking our letter into serious consideration, and we are making ourselves available to answer their questions about the law,” said Michelle Quinn, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.