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Misuse of Bond Funds Alleged

October 10, 2006|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has improperly used state bond funds to cover legal and other costs unrelated to the bond measure's purpose, a group of unidentified taxpayers has alleged.

In a letter sent Friday, an attorney representing "certain concerned taxpayers" asked the California attorney general and the state Department of Finance to recover $385,000 from the conservancy that the taxpayers contend was misappropriated.

The conservancy, created by the Legislature in 1980, controls more than 62,000 acres of once-private land between east Ventura County and the Whittier Narrows. Its mission is to buy and preserve land to form a system of parks, open space, trails and wildlife habitats easily accessible to the public.

The agency, housed in a Ramirez Canyon compound donated by Barbra Streisand, has often tangled with Malibu officials and residents.

Under Proposition 50, a 2002 clean water measure, the conservancy received $20 million in funds authorized by voters for "the protection of Santa Monica Bay and Ventura County coastal watersheds."

In February, the conservancy made a $200,000 grant to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, with which it closely operates as part of a joint powers agency.

The funds were intended to prepare applications for coastal development permits, in part for creek restoration. Instead, the taxpayers say, the money was used to prepare an ambitious "public works plan" for a park and trail system in western Malibu.

The conservancy intends to seek approval for the plan from the California Coastal Commission. Malibu officials have complained vociferously that that would skirt local land-use laws.

In August, the conservancy provided the authority an additional $185,000, much of which was to pay private attorneys to defend the conservancy and the authority in a lawsuit. The suit seeks to enforce an earlier court judgment that would require the agencies to cease using their headquarters park for office and commercial purposes.

Streisand donated the 22.5-acre property to the conservancy in 1993. Until July, the conservancy had marketed the property as a spot for weddings and other events, to the chagrin of Ramirez Canyon neighbors who complained about traffic and other issues.

In a letter dated Sept. 7, John A. Saurenman, supervising deputy attorney general, told the conservancy that Proposition 50 and the general obligation bond law authorized the use of bond funds for planning activities. He added that California law also provided that bond funds may be used to reimburse legal expenses.

But Steven A. Amerikaner, an attorney for the Ramirez Canyon Preservation Fund, a homeowners group, disagreed. "We don't think they can use them for legal fees and, if they can, not for these kinds of fees," he said. "We argue that the public works plan is a way for the conservancy to keep on doing a number of things unrelated to clean water."

Under California law, when a "demand for action" is made to the attorney general or the Department of Finance, the agencies may take the case or leave it to a state taxpayer to initiate a lawsuit. Amerikaner said his clients were prepared to take the case to court.

The conservancy's use of bond money has come under fire in the past. A 2004 state audit found that the conservancy had mismanaged $7 million in voter-approved bond money that was supposed to be used to acquire and restore parkland.

In a scathing report, Department of Finance auditors found that the conservancy "does not adequately manage, control, or oversee" $115 million in bond funds, funneling money to pay for legal fees, office expenses, conferences, cars, travel, vacation and sick pay, and "excessive" overhead charges.

In May, the Department of Finance closed its audit of the conservancy's use of Proposition 50 funds, stating that the conservancy and the authority agreed with the findings and had taken or planned to take appropriate corrective action.

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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