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California paid for top officials' free rides

Gov. Schwarzenegger banned nonessential travel, but records show members of his administration have racked up miles at taxpayers' expense.

March 01, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — John Cruz, the appointments secretary for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, lives hundreds of miles from the state Capitol, where his staff scrutinizes candidates for California's many boards and commissions.

When Cruz works there, he goes by plane. He has charged taxpayers for his flights and for hotel bills of up to $382 a night on regular trips between his Orange County home and Sacramento, records show.

Carrie Lopez, director of the Department of Consumer Affairs, charged taxpayers to fly from Sacramento, where she works, to Los Angeles, where she lives, to attend a Justin Timberlake concert with her daughter. She listed the trip on her expense report as a meeting with the energy company that paid for the concert tickets. Lopez also billed the state for meals on days she received those meals for free from corporations, according to state records.

Rosario Marin, head of the State and Consumer Services Agency, blamed a miscommunication for her failure to repay $582 the state spent to fly her to Washington in July to speak at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, an appearance for which she received $1,000. She reimbursed the state for the airfare after The Times inquired about the trip last month.

Over the last two years, as California has slashed services and scrambled to pay bills, top administration officials have made free use of government expense accounts with little oversight and, in some cases, no documentation, The Times has found.

Together, they have spent tens of thousands of dollars on state-funded trips between Sacramento and the areas where they live, justifying the travel as necessary for state business. Some built weekend trips around one short meeting, and some charged the state to attend events with no apparent connection to their jobs.

Often their expense reports were approved by subordinates. Many of the costs were incurred after the governor issued an executive order a year ago that state agencies avoid all nonessential travel due to California's fiscal emergency.

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Long commutes to the Capitol

State law allows employees to charge taxpayers only for activities on behalf of the public, which do not include commuting or events related to their personal lives.

"Is anybody at the wheel here?" said Michael Josephson, president of the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles.

"The best possible case for this, which is still not a good case, is [that] nobody is providing oversight. . . . The worst case is that you have some people who are knowingly taking advantage."

After Schwarzenegger took office in 2003, his administration required senior officials to live in Sacramento, but that policy has changed. The governor himself rarely spends a night in the capital now, but he pays for his commute home by jet to Los Angeles.

His chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, drives nearly 180 miles between her Marin County home and the Capitol almost every work day in a state car, using state gasoline. She paid income taxes on the car's estimated $14,000 value last year, according to Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

The Times examined expense reports and calendars for 10 high-ranking administration officials from Southern California -- including three members of Schwarzenegger's Cabinet and three people on his senior staff -- most of whom were appointed in 2007, the first year of his second term.

A few of the officials said they had received permission, when they took their jobs, to continue living in Southern California and to travel to Sacramento as needed. The others are supposed to be based in Sacramento except when traveling on state business.

Some said the governor's office ordered them to appear at some of the events they attended.

David Nolte, a Los Angeles accountant, said employees can be liable for income taxes if they orchestrate business meetings in order to be reimbursed for what otherwise would be personal costs, such as commuting.

"That's really no different than saying, 'I'm going to Hawaii for a vacation,' and spending 10 minutes at a meeting in Hawaii, and having my employer pay for a round-trip airfare," Nolte said.

McLear said after Times inquiries that the governor's new Cabinet secretary, Victoria Bradshaw, would take over the task of reviewing travel expenses.

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Places to go, people to meet

A minimal number of officials travel extensively, McLear said, adding that despite their travel, the governor's office has cut its budget and staff over the last year.

The expenses officials charged were on top of state salaries of more than $120,000 a year. The three Cabinet members earned $175,000 a year.

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