SACRAMENTO — Top-level managers and other employees of the state Department of Transportation, including Director Leo J. Trombatore, overcharged more than $284,000 for travel expenses and meals during the last year, legislative investigators reported Wednesday.
They also found that sloppy management practices allowed hundreds of department employees to be paid for overtime never worked. But they said it was virtually impossible to determine how much of the $24.5 million spent on overtime was fraudulently claimed.
The report by state Auditor Gen. Thomas W. Hayes added new fuel to the election-year controversy over lax or non-existent department management controls that have enabled some officials to sign their own expense claims, some workers to submit phony overtime pay claims and some to file for mileage reimbursement far in excess of the amount permitted.
As a result of its own internal investigation, the department recently took disciplinary action against employees found to have committed abuses, including firings, reprimands and demotions. This followed Trombatore's edict to "clean house" after newspaper disclosures.
Department spokesman Gene Berthelsen said 60 employees have been disciplined since the outbreak of the controversy last month.
Although many of the abuses identified in the 46-page audit previously had been reported in news stories, the audit indicated that improper practices were far more widespread than department officials had acknowledged. The auditor general's investigation found that department management control policies ran counter to official state policies and that some had become common practice.
Hayes, an employee of the Legislature, conducted the investigation at the request of Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee and a persistent critic of the department. Hayes issued a series of remedial recommendations in which he said "the department has initiated or has completed corrective actions."
Trombatore's direct superior, Business and Transportation Secretary John Geoghegan, said the auditor general's recommendations will be included "in our action plan."
Among the top officials in the road building agency cited for expense abuses was Trombatore himself. The report said he had paid back more than $1,600 in excessive car mileage reimbursements and for using a state airplane in July, 1984, to fly on personal business to Reno from Bishop, where he had been on vacation.
The report also said that Richard Doyle, a former deputy director in the department's Los Angeles region, has been required to pay back $8,042, most of it for claiming living expenses to maintain an out-of-town residence after he had permanently moved from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles.
Although state regulations specifically prohibit the practice, 81 department managers, including Doyle, had long been allowed to approve their own expense claims, the report said. Auditors reviewed the expense reimbursements of 10 of those and found that two of the high-level managers had received $9,200 more than they deserved since 1983.
Additionally, the auditors said, 291 employees, including Trombatore, had been following a Caltrans policy of charging 30 cents a mile for using their personal cars on official business. State regulations say that figure can only be charged if no state car is available. Otherwise, the maximum allowed is 16 1/2 cents.
Hayes said that the Caltrans policy encouraged its workers to use their own cars instead of state automobiles, although state regulations require the opposite.
Caltrans officials say the department's policy was a holdover from the early 1970s, when the state was attempting to reduce the size of its vehicle fleet in response to high gasoline prices. Trombatore said he had been unaware that the policy conflicted with current state regulations.
Trombatore told the Transportation Committee in a hearing on the audit that whereas he paid the excessive mileage payments, he did not believe that department employees should do likewise. He said they were merely following a department policy.
"It appears to me the department was wrong--not the employees. It seems to me it would be wrong to ask them to pay it back," he said.
In a written response, Geoghegan said Hayes' declaration that the Department of Transportation had started or completed corrective actions on issues raised in the report "should put legislative concerns to rest."
But Katz said he still has concerns, adding, "They've addressed part of the problem . . . the structural deficiencies. The problem seems to be that nobody over there (at the department) can follow their own rules."
He told a reporter that it was now up to the Deukmejian Administration to decide whether "they have confidence that the people who have been abusing the system can now run it right."
At the hearing, Trombatore said that the department "is just as critical of itself as the auditor general and legislators are. Our integrity is on the line here, and I want to keep it intact."
Katz and Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) also suggested the recent firings of two San Diego-based cashiers, who have not been charged and who have denied they stole the $13,600 discovered missing from state accounts, represented "a very serious double standard."
"When you are a deputy director and you take $8,000," Katz said, referring to Doyle, who had been the No. 2 department official in Los Angeles, "Caltrans says you can pay it back."
Trombatore insisted at the hearings that all the personnel actions were handled fairly.