In the bountiful world of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, Aug. 21, 1991, was an unremarkable day.
Two dozen of the agency's accountants, bookkeepers and financial planners headed off for a three-day retreat at a Palm Springs resort that cost taxpayers nearly $9,000.
The executive director boarded a plane for Washington, D.C., on one of dozens of trips he has made around the country since he was hired in 1989 with a generous contract and an open-ended expense account.
And back at headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, three departments held lunch meetings catered by a nearby restaurant where the commission has a standing account. The bills totaled $499.
These are boom years for mass transportation in Southern California and the agency in charge of building the region's vast new rapid transit system has made the most of them.
Fueled by billions of dollars in sales taxes approved by frustrated commuters, the LACTC has burgeoned over the last decade. Once an obscure transportation planning agency, the commission has been transformed into a cash-rich giant with the power to bestow some of the biggest construction and consulting contracts in the country.
But the gush of tax money has brought problems. Management of the agency has been marked by poor accounting, questionable spending practices and inadequate financial controls, a Times examination has found.
During a recent 18-month period, the agency's 446 staffers, who are among the highest-paid government workers in the region, spent at least $2.9 million on travel, meals, entertainment and automobile expenses, according to records obtained by The Times under the California Public Records Act.
The records show a pattern of financial practices uncommon for a public agency, including issuance of more than a dozen credit cards with limits up to $10,000, a haphazard bill-payment system that resulted in thousands of dollars in late fees for overdue bills and a casual approach to executive expense accounting.
Problems in the agency start at the top.
Neil Peterson, the agency's executive director, rarely filed expense accounts. Ten days ago, he reimbursed the commission for $1,267 in personal charges he made on a commission credit card during the 18-month period. One of the bills was from a Scottsdale, Ariz., golf school. Peterson repaid the money after The Times requested explanations of his credit card purchases.
Lax financial controls also made it possible for another top official, Thomas Tanke, to charge $1,588 in bicycles on an agency credit card, records show. He repaid the money and $1,136 in additional personal charges six months later, after auditors traced the charges to him, officials said.
In interviews last week, Peterson and other LACTC officials acknowledged that their spending practices may appear inappropriate during a tenacious recession that has forced private businesses and less fortunate government agencies to make dramatic cutbacks. Peterson said he and his staff "have realized that the economic times have changed."
"We've got religion," Peterson said, adding that new policies on meal, entertainment, travel and automobile expenses have been instituted and financial controls put in place. He said spending on travel and meals has been drastically reduced.
Procedures Recently Reformed
"It's one thing to have done something," Peterson said. "It's another thing to be mature enough to say, 'Hey, even though it might be legitimate and even though we may have done business that way in the past, we need to change,' and we've done that."
In a review of thousands of pages of LACTC records, The Times found that:
* Peterson and other employees spent $51,000 at the Los Angeles Athletic Club during the period. A large portion of the money was spent for food for group business meetings at the club, records indicate. Some of the total was spent by Peterson for breakfasts, lunches and other meals with staffers and others. It was not clear from the records how much was attributable to Peterson, who received a membership in the club as part of his employment contract.
* Bills were frequently paid late--sometimes by nearly a year-- prompting creditors to charge thousands of dollars in late fees for commission credit card accounts and vehicle leases. Late fees on the Athletic Club bills totaled nearly $1,000 over 18 months. A San Jose-based magazine that ran an employment advertisement for the commission received its $288 payment 10 months after sending the first of numerous bills and letters demanding payment.
* One senior staffer flies regularly to Sacramento at taxpayers' expense to work on her doctoral degree. The agency pays her living expenses and part of her tuition.
* Staff members charged taxpayers for at least $194,000 for food, from catered lunches at the office to dinners at some of the city's most expensive restaurants. Bills for doughnuts delivered to agency offices totaled more than $6,000 during an 18-month period ending last December.