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California bullet train agency can't document details of officials' foreign trips

The travel was funded by governments of nations whose companies may seek contracts on the massive project. Disclosure of information on such trips is generally required by state ethics regulations.

October 24, 2010|By Rich Connell, Los Angeles Times

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.

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