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Congressman slams payments to tollway consultants and calls on governor to ensure proper oversight

Congressman slams payments to tollway consultants and calls on governor to ensure proper oversight
Transportation planners have turned to consultants to design outreach campaigns to sell skeptical Orange County residents on extending the Highway 241 toll road or an alternative project to ease traffic. (Los Angeles Times)

Rep. Mike Levin, a vocal opponent of plans to extend the 241 toll road through south Orange County, has called on the governor’s office to ensure proper oversight of the local tollway authority after a Times article revealed questionable payments to the agency’s public outreach consultants.

In a letter Tuesday to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) claimed “betrayal of the public trust” and asked the governor to examine whether ethics and transparency measures were in place for local governments such as the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which are controlled by elected officials from the county and a majority of its cities.

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The Transportation Corridor Agencies’ “actions undermine public confidence and cannot be tolerated,” Levin wrote. “I ask that you exercise your oversight authority in this situation and move to ensure that similar breaches are precluded in the future.”

A tollway authority representative declined to comment on Levin’s letter.

The Times reported Monday that the tollway authority had been paying millions of dollars to high-priced, politically connected consultants for an outreach campaign that would finally get the 241 extension or an alternative project off the ground.

Invoices disclosing the details of the payments came to light after San Clemente officials, fierce opponents of the toll road extension, filed a public records lawsuit to obtain the documents. They sharply criticized what they found and requested an outside audit of the bills.

Tollway authority officials and the consultants say the payments are proper and demonstrate the agency’s commitment to significant public outreach on a potentially large-scale construction project.

One consultant blamed the higher cost of public relations spending on San Clemente’s own consultant — Los Angeles-based Englander, Knabe & Allen — hired by the city to help defeat the project. The Englander firm’s proposal to the city cited Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and outlined a number of tactics to increase public opposition to the project, including public records requests for the consultants’ fees.

Adam Englander, a partner, said the firm didn’t start working for the city until early 2018 so it can’t be blamed for the tollway’s spending before then. He called it “pathetic” to point the finger at his firm for helping uncover “lobbyists who appear to have been ripping off a public agency.”

A recent internal audit by the tollway authority found that Venture Strategic Inc., which holds a contract with the agency worth $1.8 million annually, had double-billed in some instances but that overall the company had under-billed the agency by more than $4,500.

Still, the consultants and tollway authority officials struggled to explain some of the bills. The agency’s manager in charge of overseeing the spending denied the payments were simply for reading news stories. But a consultant with Venture Strategic told The Times that’s exactly what they were for.

More than 1,300 hours were billed at up to $185 an hour to read “emails of news from transportation stories; evaluate reporter perspectives,” the invoices show. The total cost for that reading was nearly $230,000, according to the bills.

On one day in 2017, a consultant was paid for seven hours of reading news stories, according to the invoice. The consultant’s own time sheet showed he only spent two hours reading news that day, he told The Times.

Levin’s letter emphasized the payments for reading news and also a day in which consultants billed nearly $14,000 for an eight-hour meeting with each other.

Digital media experts also said last fiscal year’s budget for producing online content was far too high. The consultants said they spent many hours planning and creating content that couldn’t easily be quantified. Toll roads officials said the digital media billing reflected large amounts of time responding to numerous questions posed at a public forum.

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