The Port of Long Beach spent tens of thousands of dollars subsidizing the travel of spouses who accompanied harbor commissioners and staff on trips to Tokyo, Paris and Montreal despite city restrictions that ban such reimbursements, a city audit shows.
The audit, which targeted five of the most expensive trips in the last two years, found that commissioners were able to get around restrictions by booking "companion tickets," which billed the spouse's flight as "free" but actually built in the costs, sometimes more than doubling the original fare.
As a result, the city spent $24,000 subsidizing spousal travel during three trips alone. Airfare for one commissioner and his wife during a trip to Amsterdam, Paris and Marseilles, France, came to about $15,000.
Varying itineraries also contributed to sky-high airfare. On an April 2012 trip to Amsterdam, a commissioner and senior staff member paid about $15,000 each — more than double what their colleagues paid — so they could arrive one day earlier than the rest of the contingent.
Other questionable expenses identified by the city audit included airport transportation — more than $500 per trip — and reimbursement for a single commissioner's $200 dinner, more than triple the daily expense cap on meals.
Confirming that business actually took place during each leg of the trips was difficult because of poor record-keeping and a lack of centralized travel planning, the audit said.
Harbor Commission travel costs topped $1.2 million for 12 trips over the last two fiscal years.
The report comes three months after the Long Beach City Council ousted former board President Thomas Fields, who had clashed with Mayor Bob Foster in recent years, most notably over the commission's port-related travel expenses.
"Mr. Fields has been immune to suggestions or advice and is often dismissive," Foster said in an address to the council in November. "I have no confidence that he can lead the port."
Calls to Fields were not returned and the mayor said through a spokeswoman that he could not comment because he had not read the report.
In September, the City Council capped travel expenses for each commissioner at $40,000 annually.
Following Foster's critiques, City Auditor Laura Doud initiated a review of travel costs submitted by senior staff and commissioners Fields, Rich Dines, Susan Anderson Wise, Nick Sramek and Doug Drummond between October 2011 and June 2013. Of those members, three remain on the commission.
Part of the problem, Doud says, is that commissioners are allowed to book their own itineraries and hotel rooms, with little coordination.
Doud says centralizing all travel arrangements for harbor commissioners and staff would help drive down costs.
"These are public funds. As leaders, we need to show that we are good stewards of public money," Doud said.
In a response letter, acting Executive Director Al Moro defended some of the practices, saying that grueling travel schedules and varying itineraries sometimes require certain commissioners to arrive early or stay longer, and that hotel and airfare rates can vary based on when they're booked. But he promised improvements.
The current harbor president, Doug Drummond, said he plans to meet with Doud to discuss the report and will also be holding a workshop with fellow commissioners to review her recommendations.
"We appreciate the input and we take the matter very seriously," Drummond said in a statement.
Councilman Gary DeLong, chairman of the city's budget oversight committee, said that he feels international travel by the commissioners is necessary to keep the Port of Long Beach competitive but that the auditor's recommendations should provide "more defined boundaries" for expenses in the future.
"I don't think there was anything nefarious about this," DeLong said Friday. "Do I think better judgment could have been used? Yes. And I'm confident it will be in the future."
In addition to the inconsistencies in travel arrangements, commissioners received hundreds of dollars in reimbursements for expenses during extended personal stays abroad, and expenses paid to foreign trade representatives were not clearly itemized, the audit found.
In one particular case, a trade representative was reimbursed for $887 in expenses labeled "transportation." All eight receipts submitted were written in Korean, with no translation and no explanation of what was actually purchased.