Staff at the San Diego Association of Governments took steps to hide public records and delete official documents last year, after Voice of San Diego uncovered major errors in the revenue forecast for a tax increase that went before voters last year.
The revelation comes from an independent investigation into the agency’s forecasting scandal released Monday night. SANDAG commissioned the investigation by law firm Hueston Hennigan in response to a months-long Voice of San Diego series. The final report confirms that multiple employees knew the agency’s internal forecasts had significant errors and attempted to alert officials long before the 2016 election, and before SANDAG’s ultimate concession last year that its forecast was substantially wrong.
On top of SANDAG’s dealings involving Measure A, the investigation also details steps SANDAG staff took to keep information from the public as the scandal was beginning to unfold.
Staff received directions to delete certain documents. The agency also created a separate server that was not searchable through records requests in hopes of keeping documents saved there from becoming public.
On Oct. 28, 2016, Voice of San Diego requested all emails related to the agency’s revenue forecast for Measure A, the tax measure on the 2016 ballot.
During a meeting that same day attended by SANDAG’s executive leadership – including Executive Director Gary Gallegos, Chief Deputy Executive Director Kim Kawada, General Counsel John Kirk and Associate General Counsel Shelby Tucker – multiple staff members said they were told to delete documents.
“A number of witnesses agreed that during this meeting, they were instructed to delete documents that did not fall into SANDAG’s record retention policy,” the report reads. “However, witnesses’ recollections varied as to who gave the instruction and what it entailed.”
One employee – Clint Daniels, a principal research analyst – told investigators that Gallegos instructed them to delete documents every two weeks so they wouldn’t come up in records requests.
Daniels and another employee, Senior Research Analyst Dan Flyte, said Gallegos also told everyone during that meeting to stop communicating by email and to only discuss the issue in person or over the phone.
“Daniels said that employees did delete emails during this time period,” the report says.
Kirk said his intention in the meeting was only to remind staff that, per the agency’s retention policy, any documents that weren’t deleted within 60 days would then need to be kept for two years. But other staffers didn’t take it that way.
“Although Kirk was restating SANDAG’s publicly-disclosed record retention policy, his reminder, in light of recent press inquiries and anticipated requests for documents, suggested to some employees that they should delete more than just draft documents,” the investigation reads. “As a result, some employees may have deleted non-draft documents related to the forecasting error.”
The investigation also found that SANDAG created a confidential, unsearchable folder to hide any documents created while researching the causes of the forecasting scandal.
The folder, called “Hana Tools,” was created outside of SANDAG’s intranet search function – meaning whatever was in it would not turn up when staff conducted searches for public records requests.
“When Kroninger created Hana Tools on November 1, 2016, he admittedly did so as a way to avoid public records requests,” the report says, referring to Kurt Kroninger, the former director of technical services.
“It also seems likely that (John Kirk, SANDAG’s general counsel) approved the use of Hana Tools (even if he didn’t know what it was called) as a location to store and then mass delete draft documents created in the search for the forecasting error,” according to the report.
Kroninger told investigators that Gallegos and Kawada approved his decision.
The idea, he said, was to hold all of the documents there and then mass-delete them within 60 days.
“Although we have been informed that none of the documents on Hana Tools were in fact deleted, we lack forensic data to confirm this assertion,” the report concludes.
The investigation is specifically limited to problems with SANDAG’s revenue forecast for Measure A and how the agency responded to those issues becoming public.
Investigators did not attempt to look into other revelations made by Voice of San Diego, like that the agency failed to disclose for the entire year leading up to the Measure A vote that projects within the existing sales tax TransNet had increased in cost by $8 billion – though it notes that “a number of witnesses raised this issue as one of significant concern.”
Likewise, the investigators did not attempt to look into a revelation from July that the forecast used on the ballot when TransNet passed was itself $1.3 billion higher than the agency’s official estimate.