Fewer staff would be granted credit cards at the San Diego Association of Governments, and those who do get one would need to submit substantially more documentation for their purchases under new policies up for a vote this week.

SANDAG has been working on new credit card rules since internal auditors flagged “questionable” and “improper” spending earlier this year and found the agency’s policy lacked “basic elements.” 

Why this matters

As the regional planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments uses a more than $1-billion, taxpayer-funded budget to make long-term decisions on major transportation and infrastructure projects.

Among the findings: nearly $70,000 spent at local restaurants over a four-year period. 

The proposals, which SANDAG’s audit committee will discuss at their meeting Friday, would allow only one employee to use an agency credit card for meals: CEO Hasan Ikhrata, one of the agency’s most frequent spenders.

Records that inewsource obtained show what one government ethics expert called “clear abuse” of taxpayer funds: Some of SANDAG’s highest-paid staff have regularly used agency credit cards for business meetings at local restaurants, including 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.

Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata attends a SANDAG board meeting in San Diego, May 13, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Ikhrata, who’s headed the agency since late 2018, charged $17,000 at restaurants over a two-year period. SANDAG justified his spending in a statement last month, saying the expenses were for “business purposes” to advance agency projects and priorities.

But two new policies seek to greatly restrict when — and for how much — the agency can foot taxpayers with restaurant bills involving non-employee attendees. 

The meals “cannot be lavish or extravagant,” according to the policy, and would be limited to annual rates set by the federal government. In San Diego, for example, that’s $34 for dinner per person, including tax and tips.

Documentation would also be required: The CEO would need to submit itemized receipts and claim forms that list attendees and the business justification for the meeting. The benefit of the meeting, a preliminary cost estimate and “whether any actual or perceived conflict of interest exists,” among other factors, must be considered under the proposal.

Deputy CEOs Coleen Clementson and Ray Major also would be allowed to host a business meal but would have to use personal funds and file reimbursement requests.

“Two or more employees casually scheduling a lunch gathering does not constitute a business meal,” the proposal says.

SANDAG’s Office of Independent Performance Auditor, which first flagged the credit card spending, has reviewed the policies. The agency’s Board of Directors has ultimate approval and would receive a regular report on the agency’s business meals.

Staff said finance officials are still reviewing any “instances of improper use” of the credit cards, gift card purchases and business meal charges, as well as any tax compliance issues as a result of the expenses. “Corrective action,” if any, would be completed by the end of June.

Type of Content

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

Jennifer BowmanInvestigative Reporter – South Bay and Imperial County

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,...