This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Last year, as proposals emerged to ask voters to raise transportation taxes, the Utah Transit Authority board adopted rules that it said would ensure more transparency and help calm criticism over high executive pay, bonuses and travel.
But questions are arising again over how transparent UTA is about its international travel.
It disclosed a planned Japan trip (which was canceled about the same time The Salt Lake Tribune started inquiring about it) only after repeated questioning and an open-records request.
UTA says the cancellation was unrelated to the newspaper's inquiries.
The Tribune also found that instead of having the trip approved in a meeting of the full UTA board, as new rules seem to require, it was cleared by a smaller committee whose public agenda made no clear mention of travel.
"This just reminds me of the old adage, you can't change a leopard's spots," Christopher Stout, president of the Utah Transit Riders Union, a group pushing for more UTA services, said about the agency's behavior surrounding the planned trip. "It really disappoints me that they are playing these games."
Trip tip • The Tribune started looking into UTA travel to Japan when it received a tip from an anonymous UTA employee that UTA President and CEO Michael Allegra was "taking additional unnecessary staff to a conference in Japan, one the CEO himself probably shouldn't even be going on."
The tipster wrote that at least one board member was also joining the trip.
The Tribune asked UTA about the trip July 2 and whether any such travel had been approved by the UTA board.
UTA spokesman Remi Barron responded July 6 with an email that said "the information you have been provided is incorrect. No UTA employees are traveling to Japan."
The same day, the original tipster again contacted the newspaper, emailing: "Apparently whatever you did made a difference. I heard today that the trip was canceled."
Later that week, The Tribune was alerted to an online schedule for the 9th World Congress on High Speed Rail in Tokyo from July 7 to 10. It listed UTA's Allegra as a July 9 speaker.
The Tribune then filed an open-records request with UTA for all documents discussing travel by UTA employees or board members to Japan in June or July, including travel to that rail conference. It also pointed UTA to the online posting showing Allegra was still listed as a speaker.
Barron, the agency spokesman, responded that day. "I just talked to Mike [Allegra] here in the building. He was initially invited to speak at the conference you cite below with all of his expenses to be paid by another party. Ultimately, he couldn't attend because of a conflict."
UTA explanation • In response to The Tribune's records request, UTA later offered more details in writing along with some relevant documents.
They say that Allegra and Hal Johnson, UTA manager of project development and systems planning, had both planned to attend the Tokyo conference, but canceled.
UTA board member Justin Allen did attend the conference in what the agency said was "an independent capacity. UTA registered Mr. Allen for the Congress with the understanding that Mr. Allen would reimburse UTA," which documents say he did.
UTA's written response said the World Congress invited Allegra to speak. "The Congress did not charge Mr. Allegra a registration fee because he was a speaker; a third party offered to pay his travel, lodging and incidental expenses."
Barron declined to identify that third party, other than to describe it as "a nongovernmental third party, with no expenditure of public funds."
UTA's written statement also said Allegra "canceled the trip when his mother took ill the week before the congress. UTA has no travel-related records for Mr. Allegra responsive to the [Tribune] request." It said no UTA money was spent on Allegra's planned-but-canceled trip.
The statement said scrapping Johnson's planned trip to accompany Allegra cost UTA $1,900 in expenses that could not be recovered through refunds.
Documents show that registration fees for the conference were $1,617 per person. Reservations for Johnson at the conference hotel the Hotel Metropolitan Marunouchi were for a $396-a-night rate, or $2,376 for the six-day scheduled stay.
Policy followed? • The travel policy UTA adopted last year requires its president "to report to the board for approval in a public meeting, any international travel of UTA employees for UTA business."
Instead, the Japan trip was approved by the smaller executive committee with just five of the full board's 16 members.
At the same time, the smaller group OK'd other expected international travel planned by Allegra for an international standards board on which he serves.
The public agenda for that May 18 committee meeting contains a somewhat cryptic entry for that discussion titled only "Policy EL 2.3.1."
In a tape of the meeting, UTA Board Chairman H. David Burton calls for approval of what he said was reasonable travel "realizing that though the dollars are relatively few, the publicity is always sky-high. We need to be very judicial in the way we travel and the way we talk about how we travel."
Travel controversy • UTA travel has been controversial, with critics complaining that the expense comes at the same time the agency had said it could not afford major expansion of late-night and weekend service. UTA says travel saves money by exploring transit innovations.
The Tribune reported earlier this year that UTA spent an average of $29,071 a month on executives' travel during 28 months running through October 2014 a total of $814,000 down from $36,000 a month when the newspaper earlier examined the agency's travel over a similar stretch ending in mid-2012.
Research showed that in that period through late 2014, Allegra traveled out of state for his job 42 times in 28 months.
Internationally, he jetted twice to Switzerland, once to Germany and another time to Montreal.
In the United States, he made eight trips to Washington, D.C., six to Denver, three each to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, along with treks to Palm Springs, Calif., New Orleans, Portland, Ore., Seattle, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Houston and Atlanta, among others.
Stout says the episode about the planned-but-canceled Japan trip shows UTA may be trying to avoid controversy by hiding travel before voters are asked to approve a sales-tax increase for transit and roads.
Counties are considering whether to put that tax hike (0.25 cent per $1 purchase) on the ballot this November. Forty percent of the increase in revenue would go to UTA in Wasatch Front counties, and the rest would go to cities and counties for local roads.
"It's obvious to me that this travel is going to be a thorn in their side," Stout said, adding that recent UTA actions on travel are "all for show. It's all to make sure that UTA is coming across in the best light for the voters."