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Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006 | The auditor who conducted the internal investigation into possible ethics breaches by airport authority officials challenged Wednesday public statements made by two top authority officials who said that his audit found no wrongdoing.
Auditor Mark Burchyett declined to discuss the findings of his completed audit, but said some officials did not cooperate with his probe into allegations that airport authority officials traded on their positions to get favors from airlines. He said his audit is awaiting a review by the authority’s legal counsel and that he would discuss it at a future date. Burchyett would not say which officials refused to cooperate.
But he disputed the comments of two San Diego County Regional Airport Authority officials – spokeswoman Diana Lucero and Chairman Joe W. Craver – who characterized the audit as finding no wrongdoing or ethics breaches.
“That doesn’t clearly say what’s in the report,” Burchyett said. “… There are some caveats to what I could do. There were some limitations because some parties wouldn’t cooperate.”
Lucero and Craver’s comments came in response to a lawsuit filed by a former authority official that contained allegations of the ethical breaches. They both declined comment Wednesday.
Burchyett, who is employed by the authority’s board – not President/CEO Thella Bowens – does not have subpoena power. That would give him the ability to compel testimony. He said he had that power while previously working as an auditor in Missouri, but had not been given it here.
Burchyett’s investigation came after former employee Jose Hernandez filed a claim with the authority in July, alleging that he was forced to resign after blowing the whistle on ethics violations by Craver, Bowens, authority attorney Breton Lobner, board member Morris Vance and other authority staff members.
Hernandez, 35, who oversaw airport parking, ground transportation and terminal building space, resigned in February. He claims that those authority officials violated the authority’s ethics policy by seeking special favors from airlines such as upgrades, lounge access and free shipping.
Hernandez reiterated his claims in a wrongful termination suit filed against the authority Friday in San Diego Superior Court. He is seeking unspecified damages. In his suit, Hernandez alleges that Craver was fearful that the FBI was intercepting his communications and misused authority funds by requesting sweeps for listening devices.
Craver is a former chairman of both a task force on city finances and a public facilities finance board, two groups that have been entangled in the city’s ongoing financial and legal crises. Craver, who has been forced to hire a taxpayer-financed attorney in relation to federal investigations of City Hall, acknowledged Tuesday that the authority’s offices were swept for listening devices.
While Hernandez’s suit alleges that Craver was fearful the FBI would intercept his communications, Craver said he became concerned about security in the authority offices after his BlackBerry went missing overnight.
Craver said confidential discussions occurring in authority offices about legal claims such as slip-and-fall cases have a right to be kept secret. He would not say whether any bugs were found, declining further comment Wednesday.
Officials at several local government agencies that handle similar claims said Wednesday that their offices are never swept for bugs and that the practice is not common.
Officials with the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista, as well as San Diego County, the San Diego Association of Governments, the San Diego Unified Port District and Los Angeles World Airports, which runs Los Angeles International Airport, all said their offices are never swept for bugs.
“It is not a common government practice – unless you are involved in national security issues,” said Fred Sainz, spokesman for San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.
“Sweeping? For bugs? Never,” said Irene McCormack, a port spokeswoman. “We’re not trying to hide anything here.”
At least one local office does sweep for listening devices. Gail Stewart, spokeswoman for the San Diego District Attorney, said offices there are swept for bugs “as needed” and that the necessary equipment is kept on hand.
“It’s not that unusual, actually,” Stewart said.
Hernandez’s wrongful termination suit also alleges that Bowens, the authority’s president, has wrongly used her position to request standby or reduced-rate tickets for a sister in Texas. The suit says she purchased tickets for her own travel, then requested upgrades and airport lounge access “more than 30 times.”
According to the suit, Bowens 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/Fort Worth International Airport. Hernandez claims that Bowens had 200 pounds of barbecue meat shipped in for an annual employee appreciation barbecue.
Bowens did not return a call for comment.
Spokespeople for U.S. Airways and Hawaiian Airlines, which both serve San Diego, said Wednesday that such perks are not extended to airport officials. A spokesman for Northwest Airlines also said he did not believe such perks were available to airports.
Media representatives for seven other major carriers that serve San Diego did not return calls for comment.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the FAA does not regulate perks between airlines and airports.
“We do regulate certain items that can be sent by air, such as hazardous materials,” Gregor wrote in an e-mail, “but BBQ doesn’t qualify.”
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