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A former city of San Diego administrator at the center of two failed Indian landfill deals didn’t disclose more than $1,500 in travel reimbursements from the private company negotiating with the city on the project, documents show.
The administrator, Elmer Heap, received the payment from a private Indian company for a six-day trip to Mumbai in April 2008. Following the trip, he continued negotiating with the company and didn’t disclose the payment on his annual conflict of interest forms.
City and state ethics rules prohibit certain city officials from negotiating with companies from which they have received payments of that value and require those payments to appear on disclosure statements.
Heap’s travel reimbursements add to the questions surrounding the strange tale of how the city nearly became a landfill investor halfway across the globe.
It remains unclear how or why the city became involved in Mumbai trash disposal, though, in an internal June 2008 e-mail obtained by voiceofsandiego.org, Heap said the deal would help the city understand global waste and greenhouse reduction strategies.
Heap, who at the time was the city of San Diego’s environmental services director and deputy chief operating officer, has not spoken publicly on the issue and current city leaders have said they were unaware of the extent of Heap or the city’s participation in the projects.
In 2007 and 2008, Heap signed at least three documents partnering the city with a private Indian company to bid on two landfill projects in Mumbai. The city would have provided technical support and received a 26 percent stake in the first five years of the contracts. The agreements didn’t specify how the city would have realized its return, but one landfill contract was awarded to a different Indian firm for the equivalent of $922 million.
City leaders have said Heap acted unilaterally and blamed him for agreeing to the partnership with the Indian firm, Ramky Group, without their authority. They have maintained the contracts were always void.
Ramky and the city lost their bid. After doing so, Ramky sued the city of Mumbai and the winning firm in Indian court. San Diego’s involvement in the project remains an issue in the case.
E-mails obtained through a public records request show that Heap and a subordinate, senior environmental planner Lisa Wood, flew to Mumbai for six days in April 2008 to meet with Ramky officials and brief Mumbai city leaders about their proposal.
Upon their return, Wood asked a Ramky employee to reimburse the city for expenses and future city staff time to work on the project.
“We would definitely want to reimburse the expenses you and Mr. Elmer incurred on this trip to India,” a Ramky employee wrote Wood in an April 25, 2008 e-mail. “Please let us have the details of the expenditure and the amount to be reimbursed. We will organize for payment.”
Subsequent e-mails show Heap received a $1,583 credit to his American Express card from Ramky for hotel and visa costs. Documents don’t show who paid for the remaining trip expenses.
Both Heap and Wood took city vacation time for their trip to Mumbai, according to e-mails. A review of Heap’s travel expenses showed he didn’t bill the city for a trip to India.
San Diego officials have been adamant that no city money was spent pursuing the landfill deal.
It’s unclear if Heap’s travel reimbursement would be considered a gift or income. Different city ethics rules govern each. In 2008, city rules would have prohibited Heap from accepting more than $390 in gifts from a private company doing business with the city.
If the travel reimbursement was considered income, Heap could have received the full $1,583.
But in either case, the city’s municipal code forbids officials in Heap’s position from making decisions for one year involving entities from which they’ve received a gift or income of that amount.
Heap signed at least one business deal with Ramky, within weeks of returning from the Mumbai trip in April. The company formally reimbursed him for the trip in June.
Heap also didn’t report the travel reimbursement on his annual required economic disclosure form.
Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the city’s Ethics Commission, declined to speak about Heap’s situation. But she said city officials must disclose their economic interests so the public can ensure officials aren’t using their position to benefit someone who has paid them.
“The underlying public policy is to ensure that the motivations of the city official are purely in the interests of the public,” Fulhorst said.
Heap couldn’t be reached for comment. Wood, Heap’s then-subordinate, said she turned over all her files on the Indian landfill to the City Attorney’s Office, but declined further comment.
This week, a city auditor fraud investigator said he found no fraud or wrongdoing in the landfill deal. City Auditor Eduardo Luna declined to say if his department’s inquiry examined economic disclosure issues.