Airport Officials Continue Flying (and Dining) In the Lap of Luxury

Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009 | When two airport authority board members traveled with regional leaders last October on a trade mission to London, the flying public paid their way.

Though they had the option to pay $950 to fly economy, authority Chairman Bob Watkins and board member Bruce Boland upgraded to business-class fares. So the public paid $11,000 for the tickets instead of $1,900.

If you flew out of Lindbergh Field last year, fees you paid went toward Watkins’ hotel room because he chose to arrive early in London. Your money was used for him to attend a $350 reception for the San Diego Chargers, who were playing a game against the New Orleans Saints at Wembley Stadium.

And your money was used to pay $1,200 for tickets so Watkins and a guest could attend the Chargers-Saints game. Watkins said he took a member of Parliament involved with airport security issues. Their seats were on the 5-yard line.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority has a $121 million budget, which it derives from public money. Those sources include rent paid by the airport stores that charge you $3.02 for a bottle of water, as well as a $4.50 charge you pay for every flight out of San Diego. The budget also stems from parking revenue, car-rental fees and airline fees.

Two years ago, when a San Diego Union-Tribune story focused attention on the authority’s lavish expenses, the airport authority’s leaders promised reform. New policies were drafted, approved.

The rules changed. But they’re not always being followed.

Employees have repeatedly been reimbursed for expenses that aren’t allowed under the new policy. They’ve gone to dinner together at Bertrand at Mr. A’s and expensed it. They’ve lunched with board members and expensed it. They’ve been reimbursed without the proper documentation.

And they have continued to incur sometimes lavish expenses. When the authority’s employees and board members travel, they still eat at the finest restaurants and stay at the finest hotels. They have booked last-minute flights to long-planned conferences, adding hundreds in cost. One employee’s flight to Chicago for a human resources convention cost $1,300.

Employees have flown to Los Angeles on four occasions for meetings instead of driving. Those flights have cost as much as $820 each.

Watkins said he went on the London trip to help identify customers for Zoom Airlines, which briefly provided nonstop service between San Diego and London before the company bankrupted, a business failure that cost the authority $81,000. He said he went to the Chargers game and reception “to continue to help develop relationships.”

His expenses, he said, were a part of doing business. Authority employees and board members frequently fly to conferences or to meet with airline representatives.

Though it uses public money, the authority’s expense ledgers look more like a private business’s than a public agency’s. That’s how airport officials view their work. Watkins said the authority is more business than municipal government. “Quasi-governmental” is how he described it.

But the authority is a public agency, responsible for running Lindbergh Field and land-use planning at 16 regional airports. It was created by the state Legislature. Its board members are either elected officials or are appointed by elected officials from throughout San Diego County. Its meetings follow the state’s public-meeting laws and its documents are public like any municipality. Its expenditures and practices have been repeatedly questioned since the agency’s 2003 formation.

During a 2006 push to move the international airport to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, the authority paid consultants thousands of dollars to ghostwrite editorials for prominent local residents without disclosing the authority’s role. That year, the airport’s auditor found that airport authority President and CEO Thella Bowens had repeatedly used Southwest Airlines to fly in barbecue for free from Texas and recommended halting the practice.

Watkins said the latest issues voiceofsandiego.org identified weren’t alarming and hadn’t been raised by the authority’s internal auditor — whose staff has expensed dinners costing as much as $89. The $435,000 budgeted for 2009 travel is less than a percent of the airport’s total budget, Watkins said.

He suggested that a voiceofsandiego.org reporter couldn’t relate to business class travelers because the reporter didn’t make enough money. Watkins compared voiceofsandiego.org‘s examination of authority expenses to a “person who works for the Internal Revenue Service who’s making $40,000 a year and goes in and audits someone who lives in a $1 million home or $2 million home. They’re going to be skewed in terms of, ‘Wow, I don’t have that.’”

Watkins said the authority’s expense reimbursement policies were a “guideline” and needed to have flexibility.

“The public can trust us because we’re not flagrantly violating the rules,” he said. “Our people are honest and we have enough checks and balances to make sure we’re not flagrantly violating the rules.”

Darren Pudgil, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, who appointed Watkins chairman last month, said he hopes the authority is following its written policies.

“If it is not,” he said, “it needs to address the matter.”

The authority’s employees have been repaid when they weren’t supposed to be. The authority’s policy prohibits reimbursements for employees who eat meals together. But the staff has repeatedly charged the flying public for meals around San Diego. Watkins said he would investigate the circumstances.

Bryan Enarson, an authority vice president, has repeatedly been repaid for meals with other staffers or consultants, which the authority’s policies prohibit. He has paid for Bowens’ meals and then submitted reimbursement requests to her. That allowed Bowens to approve her own meal expenses. Steve Shultz, an authority spokesman, said Bowens was unavailable for comment.

Enarson was reimbursed for a $558 dinner at the Coronado Marriott with 10 other employees; a $266 dinner with Bowens and two consultants at Bertrand at Mr. A’s to discuss terminal construction plans, a $53 Boathouse lunch with a consultant; a $39 lunch at Oggi’s with Bowens and Boland to talk about a presentation.

Lavish meals aren’t prohibited under the authority’s rules, but many local governments have stricter reimbursement policies. The city and county prohibit any purchase of alcohol with public money. Their employees must fly coach — not business-class.

The city and county have per-diem caps on meals, which are set according to federal standards. Employees get a maximum $64 reimbursement — $31 is for dinner.

At the airport authority, employees routinely fly business-class on international trips. The authority’s employees have wined and dined airline executives (and with Bowens’ pre-approval, the flying public has picked up the tab for their alcohol at least twice).

And the authority’s meal reimbursement policy is vague. It requires meal expenses to be “reasonable” and related to airport business. The Unified Port of San Diego has a similar policy.

Watkins said a per-diem was unnecessary. Many authority meals would exceed the federal per-diem if the authority adopted it. In the last three years, the airport authority has approved at least 106 meals that exceeded $50. They’re permitted by the authority’s policy and have totaled more than $8,000. They include:

  • Bowens’ $99.73 dinner (she ate fish and bought a $6 bottle of water) while staying at a $600-a-night hotel in Geneva. The meal was the most expensive on the public’s dime in the last three years.
  • Diana Lucero, who oversees the authority’s art program, ordered an $84 prix fixe spaghetti dinner while at a Toronto conference. A consultant traveling with her had the $79.56 duck confit. The flying public paid for both. Lucero said she was with other art administrators at a museum with a limited menu. “It would’ve been rude to have left the group because of the price of the dinner,” she said.
  • Vernon Evans, the authority’s chief financial officer, spent $85 on dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House while attending a Seattle finance conference.
  • Bowens and Matthew Harris, the authority’s senior director, dined earlier this year at the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C. They weren’t staying there. The dinner’s cost for two: $195.90.

Watkins said authority employees need to have flexibility to eat such meals when they’re traveling. At conferences, he said, they may be in a group and not have flexibility to pick lower-cost options.

The authority’s employees have repeatedly failed to follow other policies on expense reimbursements and still been repaid. Employees are required to provide detailed receipts of their expenses. They repeatedly have not and have been reimbursed anyway. Watkins, for example, lost required receipts for a $200 dinner with state Sen. Mark Wyland and his chief of staff and for a $94 dinner he had in London. He said no alcohol was consumed and was reimbursed.

Some questionable costs aren’t governed by the airport’s policies. Authority employees have flown to meetings in Los Angeles, even though driving would have cost a fraction. Evans, the CFO, and Richard Strickland, an authority real estate manager, spent $1,642 to fly to Los Angeles for a February meeting. Employees have taken two other flights to Los Angeles, costing more than $1,200 total.

Alan Bersin, the authority’s former chairman, billed the flying public $4,486 to attend a military conference put on by the Defense Department that had no evident connection to operations at Lindbergh Field. Participants weren’t told ahead of time where they’d go, only that the previous participants had visited places such as Guantanamo Bay and a Navy carrier off Brazil’s coast. Bowens noted on the invitation that the conference was a “very select group.” Attendees went to see military operations throughout Europe.

Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said Bersin’s expense appeared the most egregious. He did not return a call seeking comment.

The authority’s employees shouldn’t be entitled to more lavish travel than other municipal employees, Lutar said.

“If the city of San Diego can dine at a lower rate, the airport authority should be able to do so as well,” she said. “If the mayor of San Diego can travel economy, airport authority staff should be able to travel economy.

“If they have a policy they should be following it. It’s simple. If they’re violating their own policies repeatedly and it’s a trend, they need to reassess the policies.”

Clarification: The original version of this story incorrectly described the Chargers game as an exhibition game. It was a regular season game. We regret the error.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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