Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2006| An internal audit of alleged ethics breaches at the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority substantiated some claims made by a former employee, but did not find any official clearly violated the authority’s ethics policy.

In a report released Monday, Mark Burchyett, the authority’s chief auditor, recommended that the authority stop some activities, such as Southwest Airlines’ free shipment of barbecue meat from Texas for an airport employee event. He wrote that it was “unclear” whether that violated the authority’s ethics policy.

He also recommended that all senior-level airport officials and board members undergo annual ethics training.

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 authority Chairman Joe W. Craver, President and CEO Thella Bowens, general counsel Breton Lobner, board member Morris Vance and other authority staff members.

The authority had “ample evidence” to take action against Hernandez, Burchyett found. Hernandez was investigated by an outside firm on charges that he had accepted gifts and upgrades from airlines. That is when he divulged his claims about other airport officials, according to a wrongful termination suit he has filed in San Diego Superior Court.

Hernandez’s attorney would not allow him to be interviewed by the auditor, the audit states. Hernandez also did not provide evidence to substantiate any of his claims, the auditor’s report says.

His attorney, Catherine Chinn, said she would not let Hernandez participate in the auditor’s investigation. She said airport officials already had an opportunity to investigate Hernandez’s claims, when he first made them.

“They had their chance,” she said. “Now they’re in litigation. You can’t make an end run around litigation like that. No lawyer will allow their client to have informal conversation with a defendant in litigation.”

Without subpoena power, Burchyett couldn’t compel testimony or the turnover of documents for his investigation. All airport officials, with the exception of Hernandez, cooperated with his probe.

Other allegations and the audit’s corresponding findings:

  • Bowens, the authority’s president and CEO, had airlines ship barbecue meat – pork, beef ribs and brisket – for free from Angelo’s, a favorite Fort Worth restaurant. (She formerly worked as budget administrator for the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.) Hernandez claimed 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.

The auditor substantiated much of this allegation. His report says Southwest Airlines has shipped barbecue meat for free since 1998. Because no specific employee personally benefited from the shipment, it is “unclear” whether it was an ethics code violation, the audit states. No evidence exists that public funds were spent on the barbecue, the report states. Airport vice presidents voluntarily donated to pay for the barbecue. Bowens paid the remaining cost herself, the report says.

  • The suit alleged that Craver had his office surveyed for listening devices at authority expense because he “was worried that his communications could be intercepted by the FBI or similar such agencies.” Doing so, Hernandez’ suit states, was a waste of public funds. (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 received free first-class upgrades for himself and his wife.

The audit found that periodic bug sweeps occur at a cost of $3,000 each. Craver inquired about sweeps once, the report says, after a theft in his office. The sweeps are a “prudent practice,” the report says, given the litigation and negotiations that occur at the authority. The audit also backed Craver, who said he’d paid for his wife’s upgrade and that the authority’s policy allowed him to travel first class.

  • The suit alleges that 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.

The audit found that the trip took place, but did not substantiate Hernandez’s claims that he was reimbursed for his expense. Sexton had traveled to Southwest Airlines headquarters to learn about its employee development program. Sexton purchased the ice cream, but did not do so at any cost to the authority, the report states.

  • The suit alleged that Bowens requested standby or reduced-rate tickets for a sister in Texas. The suit also alleged she purchased tickets for her own travel, then requested upgrades and airport lounge access “more than 30 times.”

The auditor did not substantiate the claim. Airline officials that he interviewed said no one from the authority had ever requested favors.

  • The suit claims Lobner requested 50-yard-line seats for a Poinsettia Bowl football game by asking Hernandez to contact the Holiday Bowl Committee.

Lobner paid for the tickets, and did not obtain special favors or special pricing, the auditor’s report states.

  • 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.

Vance received a free first-class upgrade, the report says. Vance had contacted Sexton to ask for an exit row seat to have more leg room. He did not request a first-class seat, the audit says. Sexton made the arrangements, which put Vance in first class. Vance did not intend to circumvent the authority’s ethics policy, the report says, so it “does not appear that Mr. Vance violated the Ethics Policy.”

Burchyett did not return a call for comment. Authority spokeswoman Diana Lucero declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

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