The head of the San Diego Association of Governments proclaimed “the buck stops with me,” saying he takes responsibility for the agency’s recent financial controversies, including extravagant taxpayer-funded meals and a $1.8 million mistake on its South County toll road.

“You can go attack me, I’m fair game,” SANDAG CEO Hasan Ikhrata said during an April 22 board meeting. “But I think you need to help me move this agency forward with the independent performance auditor to be a world-class organization.”

Why this matters

With a $1.13 billion annual budget, the San Diego Association of Governments is a taxpayer-funded planning agency that helps make long-term decisions that impact the entire region.

Ikhrata did not directly address his own restaurant charges in his remarks, which total more than $17,000 over roughly two years. But he did say that while SANDAG board members are giving “political speeches,” he’s working to earn the public’s trust.

“I came here to fix what’s broken,” said Ikhrata, who joined the agency in late 2018 as it was embroiled in a prior scandal. “We’re doing it. It’s going to take time, it’s a growing pain. It’s a process.”

Records that inewsource obtained show some of SANDAG’s highest-paid staff have regularly used agency credit cards for business meetings at local restaurants, some of them at high-profile dining spots such as Rei Do Gado, Donovan’s steakhouse and in the U.S. Grant Hotel. Colleagues, other government officials, consultants and lobbyists sometimes joined, according to transaction logs.

As a cardholder, Ikhrata was one of the agency’s most frequent restaurant spenders, including a $700 dinner in September 2019 for him and four other SANDAG officials at a Washington, D.C., restaurant.

SANDAG told inewsource in a statement Friday that Ikhrata’s expenses “were for business purposes to advance SANDAG priorities, projects, and programs.” But one government watchdog expert previously called the transactions a “clear abuse” of taxpayer funds. 

The findings came in the wake of an internal SANDAG audit that previously flagged questionable and unallowable purchases on the agency’s publicly funded credit cards. Almost $70,000 was spent at local restaurants and almost $250,000 was charged on non-working days over a four-year period.

Much of the board, made up of local elected leaders throughout the county, has expressed concerns over the findings of the internal audit. But it remains divided on how to proceed. 

Some say they want to now focus on policy changes and point to the independent auditor as proof that checks and balances are being put in place: The office, led by Mary Khoshmashrab, also launched the investigation on disconnected toll equipment along the South Bay Expressway. 

Some toll fees went uncollected for nearly three months. Ikhrata said he has since made personnel changes and officials expect to soon replace the entire system.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, SANDAG’s first vice chair, told inewsource in a statement that the board will ensure the new policies will be implemented.

“We must do better at demonstrating that this is an agency that is competent, transparent and worthy of the public’s trust,” he said.

Others have taken it further. Poway Mayor Steve Vaus called for all agency credit cards to be turned in and said that “every unsubstantiated or questionable charge should be repaid.” Oceanside City Councilmember Christopher Rodriguez said in an interview with KUSI that there needed to be consequences for the misuse, calling on cardholders to reimburse the agency or resign.

San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones called the charges “embarrassing” and requested officials also audit any employee reimbursement requests.

“I know a lot of my residents, actually, can’t eat like that,” Jones said at the board meeting, referring to the cost of some of the meals SANDAG charged.

Staff will present new policy proposals at a May 13 audit committee meeting, with the agency saying in its statement that it wants the new rules to be “a model for others to follow.” Ikhrata said SANDAG also has stopped purchasing meals and reduced the number of credit cardholders in the wake of the audit.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource, covering Imperial County and the South Bay. She used to cover education for inewsource. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers in Michigan and North Carolina. At the Asheville Citizen Times,...