Travel spending by San Diego airport CEO is sky high - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Travel spending by San Diego airport CEO is sky high

Posted: Updated:

Feb. 7 update: No response from airport board following inewsource/CBS8 investigation

SAN DIEGO - (CBS 8 / inewsource) Business and travel spending at the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is coming under renewed scrutiny.

CBS News 8 and inewsource spent months investigating expense reports submitted by the airport’s CEO, Thella Bowens.

The records show in 2016 Bowens spent $2,345 for a business trip to Maui; $9,709 for business travel and lodging in New Zealand; $10,867 to attend a security conference in Israel; $11,117 for a business trip to Australia; and $12,980 to attend a conference in China, including a stop in Montreal, Canada.

When you add it all up for calendar year 2016, the Airport Authority spent $61,258 for Bowens to attend business conferences all over the country and around the world.

Former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre knows all about the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, a government agency funded by fees on the traveling public, revenues from leases of state-owned property, and federal airport grants.

“This is the kind travel you would have if you were the big CEO of a big corporation,” said Aguirre, who is now in private practice.

Aguirre said there can be little doubt the Airport Authority is spending public money to reimburse Bowens’ business travel expenses.

“It's not just the money. It's the implication that people in public service are taking advantage of their positions and are spending the public's funds in a reckless way,” said Aguirre.

CBS News 8 reviewed 2016 business travel records for other regional airport directors and compared total expenditures to those of San Diego’s airport CEO. The results are listed in the table below.

2016 Travel Expenses - Airport CEO/ Director
San Diego              $61,258
LAX                       $28,872
Phoenix                  $4,971
San Francisco         $3,929

 Los Angeles’ LAX airport serves nearly four times as many passengers as Lindbergh Field. Yet, as the numbers above reveal, the LAX airport director spent less than half as much on travel in 2016 than San Diego's airport CEO.

“People get into public office and they forget about the fact that the public office is supposed to be serving the public, not exploiting the public,” said Aguirre.

Bowens declined to be interviewed on camera for this report. Instead, Bowens’ public relations staff issued a written statement to CBS News 8 and inewsource.

“Participation in conferences helps us to understand industry trends, learn best practices, become an industry leader, (and) cultivate the relationships that lead to winning new air service in a highly competitive environment," the Airport Authority statement read, in part.

As CEO of the airport authority, Bowens earns an annual salary of more than $300,000. The 68-year-old is set to retire in March with a lifetime pension of $172,000 per year.

During a routine review of Bowens’ finances and real estate holdings, CBS News 8 discovered a discrepancy in the assessed value of her Mission Valley home.

Property records show Bowens purchased the three bedroom condominium in 2005 for $736,500. Yet, according to the San Diego County Assessor/Recorder, the 2016 assessed value of the dwelling was listed at just $270,000.

The Assessor’s office described the discrepancy as a “clerical error” made by a clerk who has since retired from the county office.

“It just looks like an error. I don’t see anything here that looks like somebody was doing Ms. Bowens a favor,” said Jeff Olson, the county’s Division Chief for Assessment Services.

Olson declined to name the clerk who made the apparent error. “Knowing this employee, I can’t imagine that there was any intentional misconduct,” said Olson.

“On an assessor error the statute of limitations is four years. So we’re going to be going back four years and issuing what we call ‘escape assessments’ for 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013.”

The re-assessments resulted in an updated tax bill on Bowens’ Mission Valley property demanding approximately $13,000 in back taxes, according to Olson.

The Airport Authority issued the following statement regarding the tax assessment of Bowens’ Mission Valley condo: "This is a personal matter. Only recently did Ms. Bowens learn of the error made by the County Assessor’s Office and is cooperatively working with them to resolve it."

Below is the entire statement provided by the Airport Authority responding to the CBS News 8 / inewsource investigation of Bowens’ travel expenses:

The Airport Authority adheres to a transparent and open process in regards to employee travel expense reimbursement. Before each trip, Thella Bowens’ travel requests are presented to the Board for pre-approval in open session. After each trip, her detailed expense reports are included in the Board packet, which is posted on san.org.

Business travel is key to continuous learning about the aviation industry and helps us meet our goal of attracting new nonstop air service to satisfy regional demand. It’s also important to our ability to support and protect San Diego airport's interests in the arenas where policies and procedures are discussed and formed. To do that, we have to be an active participant in the aviation industry. Participation in conferences helps us to understand industry trends, learn best practices, become an industry leader, cultivate the relationships that lead to winning new air service in a highly competitive environment and participate in conversations about legislation (and regulations, policies and procedures that have a direct impact on SAN). In this field, no one succeeds in a vacuum.

Unlike many other public agencies, the Airport Authority receives no local, state or federal tax dollars to carry out our mission. We must earn and grow our revenues through competitive business practices.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of serving on boards and commissions that are directly involved with setting policy and regulatory matters that impact SAN's operations and mission. Thella had the opportunity to serve on the Board of the Aviation Council International North America for nine years, as its chair in 2011-2012, was appointed by two federal Cabinet Secretaries to national committees, among other volunteer positions, all of which entailed travel. This is the best way to ensure San Diego has a seat at the table, can have a voice regarding best practices and also stay on top of aviation trends. This kind of participation also attracts aviation-related meetings to San Diego, which allows more of the Airport Authority staff access to these learning and relationship-building activities.

The Airport Authority’s Board has established policies (see section 3.30 and 3.40 here) and procedures governing travel expenses, and an audit process to ensure compliance. These were put in place when the Airport Authority was formed in 2003. They were revisited and refined in 2007 and again in 2009.

The rules for travel expenses include, but are not limited to, the following:

- Pre-approval for all out-of-town trips is required.

- Travel expense reports must be filed within 30 days of completing a domestic trip; 45 days for international travel. Receipts must be filed with all travel expense reports.

- All expense reports must be signed by an authorized administrator.

- Employees must fly coach on domestic flights. For non-domestic flights exceeding six hours, employees may move up to the next available class.

- Hotels must be reasonably priced and centrally located to conduct business.

- Employees are not reimbursed for alcohol or personal items.

Our media partner inewsource took a closer look at Bowens’ travel expenses over several years. A link to the inewsource investigation can be found here.

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inewsource is an independent, investigative journalism nonprofit supported by foundations, philanthropists and viewers like you.

Update from Feb. 7



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