Report: Travel by California bullet train officials raises ethics questions

LOS ANGELES — Foreign governments with firms seeking contracts to build California’s proposed US$43 billion bullet train have paid for overseas trips by high-speed rail officials, and officials haven’t disclosed who paid for other trips, raising ethics issues because details on costs and sponsors haven’t been made public.

LOS ANGELES — Foreign governments with firms seeking contracts to build California’s proposed US$43 billion bullet train have paid for overseas trips by high-speed rail officials, and officials haven’t disclosed who paid for other trips, raising ethics issues because details on costs and sponsors haven’t been made public.

The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that interviews and an examination of records shows California High-Speed Rail Authority board members and the former executive director took tours of train systems in Spain, France or Germany last year. But officials haven’t provided reports describing who paid for the trips or breakdowns of who paid for lodging, meals and other expenses.

Public disclosure of travel gifts to agencies is required by California ethics regulations.

Board members said they are not individually required to publicly report most of the trips because the travel was given to the Sacramento-based authority and assigned to board members and staff. Under state ethics rules, public disclosure duty is then transferred to the rail authority.

High-speed rail officials cannot find invitation letters indicating who offered the trips and they cannot produce any accounting of the donated travel, the Times reported.

Such travel outside the United States, including gifts by foreign governments, must be disclosed by officials taking the trip or by officials of the agency, said Roman Porter, executive director of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Authority chairman Curt Pringle and board members Quentin Kopp, Lynn Schenk and Tom Umberg took last year’s European trips. Former high-speed rail executive director Mehdi Morshed, who left the agency in March, joined board members on two of the trips.

Kopp, a former state senator and judge, said he assumed the authority had properly documented the travel.

“There was no attempt there to hide,” Morshed said, adding that any record keeping failings were unintentional and likely a reflection of the authority’s small staff and limited budget.

High-speed rail officials said the trips provide valuable information on complex high-speed rail issues.

“I think it’s important to have knowledge of high-speed rail and how it operates,” said Pringle, who is the mayor of Anaheim.

Bombardier Transportation (TSX:BBD.B) said it doesn’t feel disadvantaged that California officials haven’t toured its train systems.

“There are no high speed trains in Canada,” Maryanne Roberts said in an interview.

“I think what they’re doing is riding high-speed trains and seeing high-speed systems.”

While Bombardier has participated in the development of high-speed trains in France, Spain and Germany, it hasn’t been the lead manufacturer.

China has ordered its new high-speed train. It has also partnered with French company Alstom to manufacture the Acela Express trains that Amtrak operates in the northeast corridor of the U.S. between Washington, D.C., and Boston via Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.

Pringle, who must comply with strict disclosure requirements because he is an elected official, filed reports that include trips he received last year, including a $13,000 six-day trip to Germany.

Last month, the authority’s deputy executive director, Jeffrey Barker, and its new CEO, Roelof van Ark, joined Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on an Asia trip intended, in part, to encourage firms to bid on California’s high-speed rail project.

The trip was partly underwritten by government agencies in China, Japan and South Korea. Barker said a detailed accounting of the trips was still incomplete.

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