By John Olusegun 6:42 pm PST

The San Diego Association of Government, a publicly funded regional planning agency, have come under fire for the way they abuse its authority. The agency is responsible for making key long-term planning and funding decisions on transportation projects. While work-related expenses, including meals, are covered by public funds, many of the employees pull out their work credit cards for more than expected.

An internal audit at the agency reveals that SANDAG employees make many questionable purchases using their work credit cards. The most obvious was several expensive meals, especially at local restaurants. Some of these purchases flagged “unallowable” appear multiple times on transaction logs. The agency’s highest-paid employees had cultivated habits of dining at expensive restaurants in the area.

Places like Donovan’s Steakhouse, Rei Do Gado, and U.S. Grant Hotel restaurant were frequented for business meetings. The bill during each visit goes up to $100 as the staff dine exotically. Some of these meals were with other employees, while others had elected leaders, board members, and government officials.

Since the event came to light, there has been a backlash against the agency’s staff, especially the administrators. An expert called the transactions a “clear abuse” of public money, and many people support this. Sean McMorris, transparency, ethics and accountability program manager at California Common Cause, stated how perception is everything as an image is vital for government agencies. If they are viewed as corrupt, rebuilding their reputation and trust will take a long time.

How SANDAG employees spend meal money has become a big deal as the total amount racks up thousands of dollars. Over four years, they spent nearly $70,000 at local restaurants and almost $250,000 on non-working days. The auditors revealed that most expensed meals occurred in the area, so they were unrelated to travel.

Another fact that makes the situation worse is that they were not able to produce documentation for some of the purchases. This created a problem for auditors to determine the exact amount of charges that can be considered improper. Inewsource requested receipts and documents reviewed during the audit, which reveals that even the agency’s CEO is not free from mismanagement.

CEO Hassan Ikhrata charged nearly $100 at a restaurant in May 2019 but failed to submit an itemized receipt. The transaction log revealed that he dined there with a staffer and a San Diego Gas & Electric Co. executive. That was only one of Ikhrata’s frequent visits to local restaurants. He was one of the agency’s biggest spenders, charging $17,000 in meals over two years. Most were at local restaurants, but his out-of-town restaurant charges were even more exorbitant.

After the audit, the auditors warned of the danger of paying for employees’ meals with agency cards. They then recommended halting the use of credit cards at local restaurants. In response, SANDAG said they would review past transactions as they took financial responsibility seriously. However, the statement did not mention whether the agency has stopped employees’ use of credit cards at restaurants.