By Alberto Garcia
An independent investigation of the county’s regional planning agency has revealed that staffers purposely tried to hide electronic documents and deleted other documents after questions were raised about the agency’s actions before the last election.
SANDAG, the San Diego Association of Governments, is responsible for planning and developing transportation projects, including highways, roads, public transit, and bicycle paths throughout the county.
Last October, the Voice of San Diego, a local online news outlet, first raised questions about SANDAG’s revenue projections for a half-cent sales tax measure called Transnet that went before voters in November 2016. The issue revolves around allegations that SANDAG staff and Board members became aware that TransNET revenue projections were flawed and would generate less money than expected, but they failed to alert the public to the error. The lower revenues meant fewer transportation projects would be completed.
This week, a report of the findings from the independent investigation revealed that SANDAG staff began taking steps to conceal documents, deleted documents, and even avoided using email after the first media inquiries began in October 2016.
Specifically, the report found that SANDAG’s then-Director of technical services, Kurt Kroninger, created a special folder within a computer server that was not within the agency’s intranet, and staff members were instructed to save all files related to the revenues projections issue in that one folder. The folder would not have been searchable in the regular course of responding to media inquiries or other requests for documents under the state’s Public Records Act.
The folder, covertly named “Hana Tools” was created, the investigations found, to store all files related to the revenue projections issue, and allow filed to be easily deleted. Kroninger said that both Executive Director Gary Gallegos and Deputy Director Kim Kawada approved use of the folder.
“Although we have been informed that none of the documents on Hana Tools were in fact deleted, we lack forensic data to confirm this assertion,” the report concludes.
The investigation also found that, upon receiving the first media request, SANDAG staff members were reminded to delete old documents and emails consistent with the agency’s retention policies. For example, draft documents may be deleted after only 60 days, whereas other documents must be held for two years. Several staffers interviewed admitted they may have deleted documents that should have been kept.
“Although Kirk [Kroninger, Director of Technical Services] was restating SANDAG’s publicly-disclosed record retention policy, his reminder, in light of recent press inquiries and anticipated requests for documents, suggested to some employees that they should delete more than just draft documents. As a result, some employees may have deleted non-draft documents related to the forecasting error,” the report states.
The report detailed a meeting that was held among senior SANDAG leaders, including Gallegos, Kawada, and two agency lawyers, on the same day of the first media request for documents related to the revenue projections. Several staffers reported that they were told at that meeting to delete documents related to the issue, although they could not recall who told them to do so.
“A number of witnesses agreed that during this meeting, they were instructed to delete documents that did not fall into SANDAG’s record retention policy. However, witnesses’ recollections varied as to who gave the instruction and what it entailed,” the report reads.
One staffer, Clint Daniels, a principal research analyst, admitted that Gallegos instructed staff to delete documents every two weeks.
Additionally, the report revealed that staff members were instructed by SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos to not use their email when discussing the inquiries into the revenue projections, and instructed staff to only talk about their work by phone or in person.
The investigation was launched at the request of the SANDAG Board of Directors at its April 14, 2017 meeting in response to several media reports about the flawed revenue projections. The Board selected the law firm of Hueston Hennigan LLP to review the issue, but also limited the scope of the review to only examine the projections for the 2016 ballot measure known as Measure A.
The report will be presented to the full SANDAG Board at its meeting on Friday, August 4.
Critics have suggested that the scope of the investigation was too narrow, and did not investigate other issues that have been raised by media requests, including the revenue projections of the original TransNET in 2004, as well as revelations that construction costs for TransNET projects have increased by over $8 billion, further reducing the number of projects that will ultimately be delivered through the TransNET program.
Before the report was delivered, documents released by SANDAG revealed that staff members became aware that their economic projections were flawed as far back as December 2015, a full ten months before the November 2016 election. Measure A, a new four-year half-cent tax increase, was on the ballot on November 8, 2016, but failed to garner the required 66.7 percent support needed to pass.