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State high-speed rail chief admits lapses in disclosing foreign travel

October 26, 2010 |  7:34 pm

The chief executive of California’s High-Speed Rail project late Tuesday acknowledged lapses in the agency’s accounting of a series of overseas trips taken by board members and paid for by foreign governments.

The admission followed an investigative report by The Times about failures to document the sources and cost of trips in accordance with state ethics regulations. The foreign travel, in some cases worth thousands of dollars, was provided by government agencies in Spain, Germany and France that are trying to help their homeland firms win California contracts.

Also Tuesday, the agency posted on its website details of an Asia tour executives took last month. CEO Roelof van Ark and Deputy Executive Director Jeffrey Barker joined Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the trip, partly intended to encourage high-speed rail companies to bid on the $43-billion bullet train linking San Francisco to the Los Angeles area. 

The new travel report, evidently the first the agency has ever produced, shows that an array of Japanese, Korean and Chinese private and government rail entities picked up nearly $9,000 in travel, lodging, meal and other expenses for Van Ark and Barker.

“Lapses in our recordkeeping” have been corrected, van Ark said in a statement. He said the problems were found during a review of policies and procedures he initiated four months ago.

However, when The Times inquired about travel documentation last week, Barker, the authority’s top spokesman, said he wasn’t familiar with the state’s recordkeeping and disclosure requirements concerning gifts from foreign entities.

Van Ark defended overseas travel, saying it allows officials to gain information “without cost to California taxpayers.” The agency has a “better understanding of the issues involved in designing and building this project” as a result of the trips, he said.

On the 10-day Asia trip, the Chinese Ministry of Railways, which oversees that nation's high-speed rail operations and construction, paid $3,276 for the executives' travels to Beijing, Shanghai and other venues. Japanese rail car manufacturer Kawasaki, construction giant Sumitomo and other Japanese firms contributed $4,462 to cover other parts of the agency executives’ expenses, while various South Korean rail entities, including rail car builder Hyundai Rotem, contributed $1,260.

-- Rich Connell