Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006 | The airport authority’s chairman has had the authority’s offices swept for listening devices, fearful that the FBI was eavesdropping, and the authority’s president/CEO used her position to have barbecue meat shipped in for free from Texas, according to a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a former authority employee.
Jose Hernandez, 35, the authority’s former director of landside operations, sued the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority in San Diego Superior Court on Friday claiming he was wrongfully terminated after questioning whether senior airport officials violated the authority’s ethics policy, trading on their positions to secure favors from airlines.
Hernandez, who oversaw airport parking, ground transportation and terminal building space, resigned in February. The suit says he was forced to resign or would have been fired after he blew the whistle on violations of the authority’s ethics policy by employees including President/CEO Thella Bowens, Chairman Joe Craver, general counsel Breton Lobner and authority board member Morris Vance. Hernandez divulged his claims, the suit says, while being investigated earlier this year on charges that he had accepted gifts and upgrades from airlines.
Mark Burchyett, the authority’s chief auditor, has been investigating Hernandez’s claims since he filed a complaint with the authority July 12. Authority officials, who have not seen Burchyett’s findings, say he has found no ethics violations took place. Burchyett could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Hernandez’s suit seeks unspecified damages and attorneys fees, claiming he has “suffered great mental and emotional distress.”
According to Hernandez’s suit, authority officials violated the authority’s ethics policy by seeking special favors from airlines and by misusing authority funds. His suit alleges that:
- Bowens, the authority’s president and CEO, had airlines ship barbecue meat – pork, beef ribs and brisket – for free from Angelo’s, a favorite Dallas restaurant. She formerly worked as budget administrator for the Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport. Hernandez claims that Bowens had 200 pounds of barbecue meat shipped in for an annual employee appreciation barbecue. Higher-ranking authority employees were required to pay money to subsidize the expense of the meat, the suit states.
Asking for such favors from airlines is wrong, the suit states, because officials are not supposed to receive gifts or favors because of their official positions.
- Craver had his office surveyed for listening devices at authority expense because, the suit said, he “was worried that his communications could be intercepted by the FBI or similar such agencies.” (Craver, who served a number of appointed positions at the city of San Diego, has been forced to hire a taxpayer-financed attorney in relation to the federal investigations of City Hall.) The suit also alleges that Craver requested first class upgrades for himself and his wife.
- Ted Sexton, the authority’s vice president of operations, paid $1,200 for an airline ticket to travel to Texas to bring back Blue Bell ice cream for the employee event, then received authority reimbursement.
- Bowens requested standby or reduced-rate tickets for a sister in Texas. The suit also alleges she purchased tickets for her own travel, then requested upgrades and airport lounge access “more than 30 times.”
- Lobner requested 50-yard-line seats for a Poinsettia Bowl football game by asking Hernandez to contact the Holiday Bowl Committee. It is also alleged that Lobner threatened to sue Hernandez after being in Hernandez’s July claim.
- Sexton instructed Hernandez to use his position to secure a limousine for a colleague’s wife’s funeral procession.
- Vance, who is also Vista’s mayor, requested assistance to rearrange his itinerary and seating to attend the 2005 Little League World Series, where a Vista team was in the finals.
In an interview, Hernandez said he shared the allegations with authority investigators who were looking into his background immediately before his resignation.
“They chose not to act on them,” Hernandez said. “I’m confident that when this issue comes to trial I will be able to substantiate the allegations. … This is really kind of a call for action.”
During his investigation, Burchyett, the auditor, requested information from 17 airline officials. He sent a list of 19 questions to airline officials, asking whether they’d been contacted by authority staff about any of the alleged incidents.
Diana Lucero, an authority spokeswoman, declined comment on specific allegations, but said: “We’ve done a thorough review of the allegations, and we believe the complaint does not allege any valid causes of action.”
She would not say who had done the review.
“It’s a matter of litigation, so I’m not going to provide any more comment,” Lucero said.
Craver, the authority board’s chairman, has not yet seen the authority auditor’s report, but said he has been told that it found no ethics code violations. He confirmed that authority offices were swept for listening devices, but said the sweeps were condoned by the authority’s legal counsel and were “perfectly within our rights.”
Offices of the board’s executive committee – Craver, Xema Jacobson and William D. Lynch – were swept, he said. So was the authority’s accounting department and its conference room, Craver said.
Craver said he did not direct the authority to do the sweeps, but inquired about them several years ago. He said he harbored concerns about security in the authority’s offices after his BlackBerry went missing there overnight. And with discussions of a proprietary nature occurring in airport offices, Craver said, “we have a right to safeguard what we talk about.”
Craver rejected Hernandez’s claim that he was concerned about FBI surveillance. Craver served as chairman of a task force on city finances and public finance board, two issues that have been ensnared by federal investigations into city finances.
If federal attorneys or a district attorney placed a listening device in the airport, Craver said, that would “immediately be brought to their attention, if it was their listening device that we found. We’re certainly not hiding anything from law enforcement.”
Craver denied Hernandez’s other allegations. He said he is authorized to travel first class as an airport authority member; he said he paid for his wife’s upgrade. He said he was not involved in the investigation surrounding Hernandez’s employment.
“It appears,” Craver said, “that he is striking back.”