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Bowen calls McPherson's suit over funds a `stunt'

Challenger says the secretary of state has conflicting numbers for cost of Shelley misdeeds. He says he was looking out for the taxpayers.

October 26, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

When Secretary of State Bruce McPherson recently called on the state to sue his predecessor, he said disgraced Democrat Kevin Shelley's misdeeds would cost California taxpayers nearly $3 million in misspent federal election dollars. But in appeals from his office to a federal elections commission nearly a year ago, McPherson's staff argued that a third of that amount was properly spent.

McPherson said his office at that time was trying to lower the amount the state would be forced to repay. Ultimately, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission ruled this month that the Shelley administration misspent $2.9 million in federal funds, and taxpayers should not be on the hook for the money, he said.

"We wanted to hold the people of California the least vulnerable as possible," he said. "Would Californians want me to sit on my hands and do nothing, or say, 'OK, that's good enough'? I don't think that's what they want, or what they deserve."

But McPherson's challenger for secretary of state, state Sen. Debra Bowen, said the contradictory statements prove that McPherson's call to sue Shelley was posturing in advance of the Nov. 7 election.

"It makes it more clear than ever that stunt last week was political grandstanding," said Bowen (D-Marina del Rey). "It really is another case of the secretary saying one thing and doing another, and in this case, there is a paper trail."

A centerpiece of McPherson's campaign has been his work undoing Shelley's misdeeds. When he was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after Shelley's resignation in 2005, McPherson said he had inherited a poorly run office that had hostile relationships with election officials in the state's 58 counties and $150 million in frozen federal funding. He turned it into an efficient agency that is viewed as a model by federal officials.

Bowen argues that McPherson's call to sue Shelley is merely another attempt to bring the Shelley debacle into the current election.

"Kevin Shelley is not on the ballot," she said. "Bruce McPherson is on the ballot and Debra Bowen is on the ballot."

The debate centers on money provided to the state by the federal government through the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was prompted by the 2000 presidential recount. California has received hundreds of millions of dollars in HAVA money to upgrade voting machines and electoral procedures.

In late 2004, state auditors found that Shelley had poorly managed the funds and didn't properly oversee his staff or consultants. Shelley was never charged with a crime.

The Election Assistance Commission audited Shelley's use of HAVA funds, and in December found that he had misspent or failed to properly document more than $3.8 million in spending. Further appeals by McPherson's office led that number to be reduced to $2.9 million in a final decision announced Oct. 16. Of that, nearly $2.4 million must be repaid to the state's election fund, and $536,122 must be repaid to the federal treasury.

On the day the decision was released, McPherson issued a news release and sent a letter to state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, urging him to sue Shelley to recoup the money, and calling it "wholly unfair and unacceptable" that taxpayers would lose money "due to the documented misconduct and mismanagement of Kevin Shelley."

But in a Nov. 30, 2005, letter from McPherson's office to the Election Assistance Commission, McPherson's staff argued that more than $1 million of the $2.9-million final figure should not be charged to the state. Costs that McPherson's office argued the state should not be required to repay -- but that he now is urging the state to recoup from Shelley -- include $915,394 in consultant services, $108,077 in overhead costs, $25,616 in interagency costs, and $719 in travel and voter outreach materials.

McPherson noted that regardless of his office's appeals, the Election Assistance Commission held that $2.9 million was misspent by the Shelley administration.

The attorney general's office sent McPherson a letter last week, saying it could not bring a civil suit against Shelley because it once represented him. The letter suggests McPherson contact Controller Steve Westly or seek outside counsel, which McPherson said he was considering.

Through his attorney, Shelley declined to comment.

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