A Santa Maria Public Airport District board member who attended a two-day conference on drones in Virginia and stayed in a hotel several days after the event ended — and visited the Russian Embassy — sought reimbursement for what some viewed as personal business costs.

David Baskett’s travel expense reimbursement form sparked questions and criticism from his board colleagues last month before they rejected some items related to his trip to a conference on countering nefarious unmanned aerial systems. 

He sought repayment of $5,367.48, compared to the $3,661.43 reimbursement request filed by Ignacio “Nash” Moreno, airport board president, who also attended the conference.

The budget for two people to attend the conference, which some board members doubted would be beneficial to the airport, had been approved at $7,116.

One of the most questionable expenses raising eyebrow occurred Aug. 17 — after the Counter-UAS Summit in Virginia ended. 

Baskett submitted a request for an Uber ride to the Russian Embassy and a return trip. Together the trips amounted to nearly $58.

Director Chuck Adams asked during the Sept. 28 board meeting what the trip had to do with airport business.

“Nothing that I can see,” Adams said. 

“I would really love to hear the reason for the Russian Embassy,” Moreno added. 

Baskett said he had no meeting there but simply checked in to the Russian embassy to remind them “we’re still here, still available when the political situation gets better. The politics right now suck.” 

One of Baskett’s businesses involves an attempt to contract with Russian firefighting aircraft, a proposal that had a lukewarm reception from the United States government even before U.S.-Russian relations declined dramatically.

Baskett’s  request included a $1,595 two-day pass for the conference. Moreno also attended, but paid less. The conference offered a $595 pass available for academic, nonprofits and military and a $49 rate for U.S. government and military personnel. 

While Moreno spent Aug. 14-16 at The Westin Alexandria Old Town, Baskett stayed at the Westin three additional days, raising more questions about improper reimbursement request.

“You did stay five days. It was a two-day conference. You did go to some places that make no sense,” Moreno said. 

Both board members paid more than $2,200 for round-trip airline tickets, which they blamed on the late approval for their conference attendance after the divided board debated during a few  meetings whether to authorize the trip amid questions about its value .

Baskett had lobbied hard to attend to Aug. 15-16 Counter-UAS Summit in Alexandria, Virginia, drawing opposition from some board members who doubted the topic would be relevant to airport business.

At the Aug. 10 meeting as the board debated sending two members, Adams contended the topics appeared geared toward military aviation community, not small airports.

Baskett, Moreno and Director Michael Clayton approved the request. Director Steve Brown was absent but had voted against the item previously.

“I just think it’s fiscally irresponsible when I can’t see it doing any benefit for this airport or the constituents of this district,” Adams said in voting against sending two directors.

“We have a responsibility to keep this airport safe, and we need to know what the threats are,” Baskett said, calling it “a minor cost.”

In his Aug. 24 report on the conference, Moreno said it didn’t seem centered toward small airport operators. After the first day, Moreno said he skipped day two and instead connected with the district’s lobbyist.

Moreno said attendees appeared to be military members, and recalled one person, upon learning he represented a small airport, asking why he was there. 

While some presentations there were cool, Moreno said he “felt the conference was a waste of time for the airport.” 

Staff also highlighted a second trip by Moreno to the EAA AirVenture in Wisconsin in July.

The district budgeted $6,352, and Moreno spent $3,672.45. But staff pointed out that Moreno lacked receipts for several items on the district-issued credit card.

Airport District staff recommended not approving items lacking receipts to avoid trouble during the annual audit.

The airport district has budgeted $85,000 for staff and board member travel, with requests routinely appearing on agendas.