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Panel clears members of high-speed rail board after investigation into overseas trips

The state Fair Political Practices Commission has cleared members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board after an investigation into a series of overseas trips and whether they were properly disclosed.

January 28, 2011|By Rich Connell, Los Angeles Times

The state Fair Political Practices Commission has cleared members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board after an investigation into a series of overseas trips and whether they were properly disclosed to the public.

The Times reported in October that the rail agency was unable to document officials' trips to various countries, including France, Spain and Germany. The trips, which typically included visits with manufacturers, government officials and rail operators, as well as rides on high-speed systems, were paid for by foreign governments trying to help their homeland firms win large contracts.

In November, the state's ethics watchdog agency notified board members Curt Pringle, Lynn Schenk, Quentin Kopp and Tom Umberg, as well the agency's former executive director, Mehdi Morshed, that it was investigating.

The five received letters this week saying the inquiry "determined there is no evidence that you committed a violation" of state law and that the cases were being closed.

Schenk called it "the right decision." Umberg said he tried to comply with all reporting requirements, including seeking prior legal advice from the state attorney general's office. Kopp said he had assumed the rail agency properly reported the trips. Pringle and Morshed did not respond to requests for comment.

The authority plans to begin building a $43-billion statewide bullet train line next year.

The trips were donated to the rail agency and then distributed to board members, officials said. Generally, state law requires agencies to prepare public reports on donations they receive.

The authority's new chief executive, Roelof van Ark, acknowledged lapses in past travel recordkeeping and said the problem has been corrected. Officials also said they would attempt to reconstruct reports on travel in recent years. The status of that effort was not clear Thursday.

Spokeswoman Rachel Wall said in a statement that the "FPPC looked at how the Authority handled travel payment in the past and how these particular trips were handled and found that there were no violations of the law. Nonetheless, the Authority is undergoing a review of its policies and actively looking at ways to increase the transparency of travel by its board members."

"Going forward, we want make sure we are as accountable and transparent as possible," Umberg said. Schenk said details of past trips should be made public, where possible, but future travels should be fully disclosed regardless of the requirements of the law. "There's no reason not to," she added. "There's nothing to hide."

rich.connell@latimes.com

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