SANTA ANA — County transportation officials moved Tuesday to tighten rules governing expense account meals after learning that the top eight officials at two agencies spent more than $18,000 on taxpayer-funded restaurant tabs last year.
Gary L. Hausdorfer, chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said he has asked OCTA Chief Executive Officer Stan Oftelie to review all employee expense policies and recommend changes.
The move came after The Times reported that the eight executives of the Transportation Authority and the Transportation Corridor Agencies had racked up the bills, and that two of them were approving their own expense account reimbursements.
Hausdorfer said he directed Oftelie to prohibit the OCTA's chief financial officer, James S. Kenan, from approving his own reimbursements and those of his staff. Oftelie agreed to change the procedure, which he has allowed for more than a year, Hausdorfer said.
Kenan was reimbursed for more than $6,000 in meals last year, many of them with financial firms that do business with the transportation agency and helped with its $540-million bond issue.
"We're reviewing an entire package of expense guidelines and ethics standards involving gifts and other things," Hausdorfer said. "I don't want to go so overboard on this that we can't give somebody a cup of coffee, but it's obvious we have to be more sensitive to these things."
Kenan defended most of his meal reimbursements Tuesday but conceded there may be a legitimate question about some.
"The downside of being a (chief) financial officer is that you always get the (restaurant) check," Kenan said. "And last year was an extraordinary year, because we did the ($540-million) bond issue.
Kenan added: "Part of any contract you enter into, there are provisions for reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenditures. So if I don't pick up the tab, it's going to come back and (OCTA) will be charged for that meal anyway."
Kenan said he better understood questions on meals with people who are not under contract. "That's probably something that needs to be looked at," he said.
The two transportation agencies are separate and operate independently. OCTA is responsible for most highway and transit planning while the Transportation Corridor Agencies oversee three toll road projects that are primarily in south Orange County. The agencies have some board members in common, however.
The Times reported that each agency spent about $9,000 in reimbursing its top four officials for meals, many of which involved staff meetings at restaurants or discussions with officials of companies being paid large sums through consulting contracts.
Transportation Corridor Agencies officials defend the expense reimbursements because they follow written policy guidelines approved by board members years ago.
But OCTA's Hausdorfer and County Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, an OCTA board member, have questioned why OCTA's guidelines are far more liberal than ones governing expenditures by county employees. With a few exceptions, those rules ban reimbursement for county employees unless the expense is incurred while the employee is outside the county on county business.
Hausdorfer, who is also a San Juan Capistrano city councilman, said OCTA's policies will "move closer to Lewis' policies" but he declined to discuss specifics until he has reviewed all of the written guidelines used by Lewis and the Board of Supervisors.
Last July, Hausdorfer barred OCTA staff and committee meetings held in restaurants. He explained this week that he did so to consolidate meetings in OCTA offices, not to save money.
Hausdorfer said Tuesday that the tightening of OCTA's rules will be part of a continuing review of ethics standards that began last year.