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Lawmaker wants tighter ethics rules for California bullet train authority

November 1, 2010 |  6:33 pm

A member of the state Assembly committee overseeing a proposed $43-billion bullet train said Monday he would draft legislation to “ensure the integrity” of the massive project, which after years of delay is moving rapidly toward construction.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) said he had become “deeply concerned” about a recent state audit questioning spending controls of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, as well as a Times report about lapses in the agency's reporting of travel gifts. He also said he was troubled about possible conflicts of interest involving two board members.

“Voters who approved this project, including residents of the seven cities [in the Bay Area] along the high-speed corridor that I represent, need to be assured that their money is being spent wisely,” said Hill, a member of the Select Committee on High-Speed Rail.

Last week, state Inspector General Laura Chick, California’s watchdog over federal stimulus money, said the authority had not properly documented millions of dollars in payments to consultants. The authority has significantly improved its procedures in recent months, Chick concluded, but it is not yet prepared to meet requirements for handling some $2 billion in promised stimulus funding.   

Also last week, The Times reported that several authority board members took overseas trips funded by foreign governments jockeying to help their firms win rail contracts. But the agency had not documented and disclosed the cost, sources or details of the trips as generally required by state ethics regulations. The agency’s new chief executive officer, Roelof van Ark, acknowledged lapses in past recordkeeping and said he had corrected the problems.

On Sunday, the Times reported that two prominent authority leaders, board chairman and Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and Los Angeles transportation official Richard Katz, have been paid tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees by firms with financial interests in the project. Both officials said they had not mixed personal business interests with their high-speed rail duties.

But potential conflicts involving some of their clients had not always been recognized or publicly disclosed during board meetings, The Times found. And, due to what one state lawmaker described as a legislative oversight, a law requiring many officials to publicly declare potential conflicts during meetings and leave the room before deliberations begin failed to include bullet train board members.

When the Legislature reconvenes in January, Hill said, he would introduce a bill to close “this loophole.” He said he also planned to meet with project officials and other lawmakers “to determine what other measures we can take to ensure the integrity of this project [is] beyond reproach.”

The rail authority's deputy executive director, Jeffrey Barker, said project officials welcome comment from "all stakeholders," including lawmakers and the inspector general, "on how to get this important piece of infrastructure built as the voters intended."

-- Rich Connell