SANDAG Audit Alleges Improper Severance Payments, Bonuses, Promotions
Speaker 1: 00:00 The San Diego agency with perhaps the most responsibility to plan for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is SANDAG the San Diego association of governments, but an audit of SANDAG threatens to give the public agency another black eye, just as it's trying to recover from a much bigger scandal involving inaccurate financial projections. The SANDAG audit committee made up of elected leaders and members of the public is due to consider the audits findings at its meeting tomorrow. Joining us is KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen. Who's covering the story, Andrew. Thanks for, Speaker 2: 00:31 Yeah, thanks for having me, Alison. Speaker 1: 00:33 All right. So, so put this into context for us that the sum of money in question is around $400,000 and an agency that managed is billions in public money. Why is the outcome of the sort it's such a sensitive issue? Speaker 2: 00:47 Well, I think pet people tend to get very upset about any allegation of government misspending, even in amounts that are relatively small compared to an agency's total budget. So there's that certainly, um, sandbags work is really important. It's responsible for funding. A lot of the transportation infrastructure in the County, uh, including the widening of [inaudible] and North County that's underway the extension of the blue line trolley up to LA Jolla and university city. Um, and as you alluded to in your intro, the agency already went through a major scandal in 2016 at SANDAG placed a sales tax measure on the ballot to fund more transportation projects. And it overestimated by billions of dollars, how much revenue that tax measure would bring in essentially allowing them to promise more projects than they knew they could ultimately deliver. And it turned out top officials knew about this error, but they didn't, uh, make it public before the election. And a later investigation found that a top officials also sought to hide documents relating to this error from the public. So most of the people involved in this scandal no longer work at SANDAG, but it's still absolutely a very big stain on the agency's record. Speaker 1: 01:58 Okay. So what exactly is being alleged? Speaker 2: 02:01 Well, the independent performance audit or Mary coach smash Rob says that SANDAG gave severance payments to three top deputies when they resigned in July, 2019. And she argues that these payments should not have happened because at least on paper, these officials were leaving the agency voluntarily. Uh, although the assumption from most of us outside is that they were either pushed out or fired. Um, at the very least she says because of the size of the payments and because, uh, uh, you know, these officials were pretty high up in the agency. Um, she thinks that the management should have asked for board approval, uh, the approval of the board of directors. In addition, she kind of paints a picture of what I would say amounts to sloppy HR practices and sloppy record keeping. Um, for example, people being given raises or promotions or new job titles without a really robust documentation of a good performance in, you know, those standard performance reviews. So, um, those were the crux of the allegations. Speaker 1: 03:06 And what has the, Socrata said so far in his own defense? Speaker 2: 03:10 Yes. The executive director of SANDAG, uh Hassana Curata um, and sandbags lawyers say that these payments are well within the authority that was delegated to the executive director to that position by both the state legislature and the board of directors, uh, for many SANDAG board members, we should note it, this might be their third or their fourth job. So, um, they might be a part time city council member or mayor on top of a regular day job. And the work that they do at SANDAG involves a lot of complex decisions. So, um, the structure is set up to place a lot of trust and authority in the executive director, especially when it comes to these, um, staffing decisions day to day operations of the agency. It's just not feasible to assume that the board of directors could, uh, you know, uh, approve every little going on. Speaker 2: 04:02 That's kind of the, the response that we've heard from across. Uh, um, they also say that the auditor relied on flawed legal theories and, um, some outdated policies or manuals that are no longer in effect. And we should also note that management condition, uh, commissioned a legal review from an outside law firm that found that these payments were, uh, totally fine. And on top of that, um, because of the seriousness of the allegations and the sort of the tone of the audit, the audit committee, which oversees coach mush, Rob that the auditor and her staff, they also commissioned a legal review from another law firm, which basically came to the same conclusion. So those two legal reviews as essentially exonerating, uh, management in this case, clearly at least complicate the story of that this audit is trying to tell Speaker 1: 04:53 When Hassana writer took over as the executive director, there was a definite feeling of cleaning house wasn't there an in SANDAG and some very prominent staffers who've been around for a long time were, uh, replaced. So was this kind of par for the course and an agency, you know, trying to change horses in mid Gallup as it were without getting into legal battles with long time employees? Speaker 2: 05:16 Well, I think that would certainly be the argument of, of management that, and it's kind of how it looked at the time across, uh, came into this agency, um, as it was recovering from the scandal, um, this scandal that ousted his predecessor, and he came in with an ambition to really shake things up and to force some tough conversations that he felt, um, SANDAG had been avoiding for many years. The agency has long been criticized from environmental groups, from equity groups that it just hasn't really taken seriously its responsibility under state law to lower greenhouse gas emissions and to improve transportation equity in the region. Um, so these three top staffers that left in the summer of last year were kind of seen as part of the old guard, perhaps maybe they weren't on board with this new vision or this change in priority. And so, um, it's also worth noting that the severance packages came with a release of all claims against SANDAG and, uh, in the audit, there's this sort of narrative that they had some, uh, you know, unknown legal claim against SANDAG. And, um, and there might've been a threat of a lawsuit that management wanted to avoid, hence their decision to, um, just basically pay them this severance money and, uh, put it all behind them. Speaker 1: 06:37 Okay, you speak of this new vision, remind us what SANDAG and her Sonic Grotta is, is embarking on that makes this audit very important. Makes people sit up and pay attention to it. Speaker 2: 06:47 SANDAG is developing its next 30 year regional transportation plan and it's different than any other previous plan, uh, because it doesn't include a lot of the freeway widening projects that were in previous plans, uh, that is because it has to lower greenhouse gas emissions. And it's very well-documented that freeway widenings tend to increase greenhouse gas emissions. It also involves a big investments in public transit, in a toll lanes and carpool lanes on the freeways. And a lot of people in North County, um, elected officials and voters are upset that some of those freeway projects aren't included here, there's also the issue of the estimated price tag of this plan, $177 billion, which is a lot more than the previous plan. And it would require voters to approve a tax measure, uh, presumably, um, and it would be very, a difficult argument for SANDAG to, um, make, uh, to voters saying that it can handle it. Can, you know, it can be trusted with your tax dollars to spend them wisely with these allegations kind of in the background. Speaker 1: 07:52 So what exactly will descend ag audit committee be doing on Friday? Speaker 2: 07:56 They will be reviewing the audits findings and basically discussing it. The auditor of Mary coach Mastrov will have her opportunity to, um, make the case of, uh, you know, defend her, the things in her audit. Um, she's also said that, I mean, this is a real power struggle. That's brewing, she's accused management of, um, not really operating in good faith and, and releasing documents that, um, were not ultimately her final work product. So I think we could expect some sparks at the meeting and ultimately the audit should, uh, go through the full SANDAG board, um, and potentially with some recommendations for changes in the future. Speaker 1: 08:35 We know you'll be following this tomorrow, so thank you very much, Andrew. Thank you. Alison that's KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen.