Opinion

"I'm concerned the rules for city credit card use were bent, and maybe broken, for Mayor Filner's unnecessary junket to France," Councilman Kevin Faulconer told U-T Watchdog. "Last year, the Audit Committee recommended strengthening credit card oversight to avoid the misuse of taxpayer dollars. We need to know the full story about how this trip was funded."

 

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The chairman of the City Council Audit Committee said he's concerned that rules governing city credit card use "were bent and maybe broken" for Mayor Bob Filner's trip to Paris last month.

 

Councilman Kevin Faulconer sent a series of questions to interim Chief Financial Officer Greg Bych on Friday after U-T Watchdog revealed that two aides to Filner increased their city charge card limits to $30,000 each in advance of Filner's trip to Paris in June.

 

"I'm concerned the rules for city credit card use were bent, and maybe broken, for Mayor Filner's unnecessary junket to France," Faulconer told U-T Watchdog. "Last year, the Audit Committee recommended strengthening credit card oversight to avoid the misuse of taxpayer dollars. We need to know the full story about how this trip was funded."

 

Faulconer, in a memo, pointed to city travel rules that state "care should be taken to obtain the lowest possible cost for transportation" and "travel for all employees must be in coach service."

 

Faulconer's questions come a year after City Auditor Eduardo Luna released a report on the city's charge card program, pointing to problems that could lead to potential abuse. The Watchdog reported last week that 575 of the city's 10,000 employees have the cards.

 

Faulconer says he wants answers by Friday. His staff did not rule out Faulconer bringing Bych or others in front of the audit committee to answer questions. The City Council may summon any city official or department head to appear before the council or any council committee to answer any question, according to the city charter.

 

A spokeswoman for Filner did not respond to a request for comment. In addition, city officials have not returned calls to explain why the increase was needed, how much was actually spent and on whose travel.

 

Filner told reporters after the trip that his own travel to France was covered by a nonprofit linked to an Iranian resistance nonprofit organization, at no cost to taxpayers, although he has not yet identified the group.

 

The mayor did say that the police budget covered travel costs for his security detail. Early on, Police Chief William Lansdowne acknowledged that travel for the bodyguards cost more than $10,000.

 

A police spokesman told U-T Watchdog last week that the security team was going to put the cost of the flights on their city-issued charge cards - but ultimately were told to stand down and that another city department would cover those expenses.

 

The Police Department did not identify the other city department, and the Mayor's Office did not respond to requests to explain the $30,000 charge card limits and whose travel was purchased by Filner's aides.

 

The charge card increase was sought by two administration officials in a June 14 email obtained by the Watchdog under the California Public Records Act, with some words blocked out.

 

One of the aides wrote that the increase was "so that I am able to purchase airfare for the Mayor [some words redacted] for an international trip planned for next week."

 

The dates for the Iranian resistance event attended by Filner were announced as early as April 12, according to a news release. It is unclear why city officials waited until the one week before the event to purchase tickets.

 

Tickets purchased so close to a departure date often mean higher costs. For example, a round-trip ticket from San Diego to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport for next week costs around $2,328, according to the travel booking site Expedia.com. With two months notice, the same itinerary costs about $1,260.

 

Filner traveled to France to participate in a rally in Villepinte, just outside of Paris, sponsored by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

 

While in France, Filner also visited the city of Lille to discuss the city's work in the area of climate control and renewable energy. Filner said the government of Lille paid for the travel inside France to and from that city.

 

Filner's fiancée, Bronwyn Ingram, who has since announced the couple's breakup, accompanied him and paid her own way, Filner said during the news conference.

 

Filner has accepted travel from groups that are part of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. He went to Paris in June 2011 as a member of Congress. He also took a similar trip in June 2007, federal records show.

 

His 2011 trip cost $6,589 and was paid for by Colorado's Iranian American Community, a group tied to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the militant - and largest - arm of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

 

The 2007 trip to France, also paid for by Colorado's Iranian American Community, cost $7,949. The plane ticket in that case was business class.

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