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California consumer affairs chief resigns

March 28, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — The director of the California Department of Consumer Affairs resigned Friday in the wake of disclosures about expenses she charged to taxpayers, including for transportation to attend a Justin Timberlake concert with her daughter.

Carrie Lopez stepped down when she was presented with findings of a review undertaken by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's finance office after a Times report March 1 spotlighted travel expenses for her and nine other administration officials.

"The Department of Finance did a full audit of Director Lopez's expenses, and found some questionable expenses," said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor. "She will be given the opportunity to justify those expenses. Any expenses she cannot justify, she has agreed to repay to the state."

Her resignation will take effect April 3, McLear said.

Lopez was the second high-ranking Schwarzenegger administration official to resign under fire this month. She followed Rosario Marin, a member of the governor's cabinet who was Lopez's boss and led the State and Consumer Services Agency.

State records examined by The Times showed that top Schwarzenegger administration officials took frequent taxpayer-funded trips to their home areas in Southern California at a time when the state was facing a huge deficit and the governor had banned non-essential travel. The officials, whose subordinates often approved their trips, sometimes justified them as business- related based on one short meeting.

Lopez charged the state for her transportation expenses for the September 2007 concert given by Timberlake at Staples Center. She and her daughter attended with tickets paid for by Sempra Energy.

Lopez maintained that she and other officials who attended discussed state business over dinner before the concert. But she has since repaid the state nearly $200 for her transportation and refunded the cost of the tickets and her food to the energy company.

She also billed the state for meals on at least two occasions when records showed she received the same meals free at events with Sempra and Bank of America. Lopez said she might not have eaten at the events. She also charged taxpayers for travel to a retreat of a nonprofit group on whose board she has served for about a decade.

The subsequent audit by the governor's office found additional expenses that appeared questionable, McLear said, but he declined to provide details. He said Lopez had been "fully cooperative" with the review.

Lopez, 41, a Democrat who was formerly executive director of the Coro Foundation in Los Angeles, was appointed by Schwarzenegger in April 2007 to head her department, which includes boards and bureaus set up to protect consumers. Her salary is $142,965 a year.

In a statement after her resignation Friday, Lopez did not address the issue of her expenses. Instead, she suggested she was departing because she had fulfilled a two-year commitment to Schwarzenegger.

She listed accomplishments, such as an annual summit that allowed consumer advocates statewide to collaborate, and a "Take Charge California" public education campaign that she said would help Californians "become empowered consumers." Lopez also thanked her staff.

"The public trust we all hold is critical, and our mission of consumer protection is solid," Lopez wrote.

Marin, whose travel expenses were also reported by The Times, resigned March 5 as the newspaper was preparing to publish a follow-up article about income she received for giving speeches to pharmaceutical companies that had business with her agency.

On March 6, Schwarzenegger imposed new ethics rules for senior administration officials, and ordered that their travel expense claims and economic interest disclosures be posted online.

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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