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California mental health executive wasted public funds, audit finds

Arthur Kassel was paid more than $51,000 to attend events with celebrities while claiming he was doing agency business, the report says. Kassel denies squandering time on the state payroll.

August 26, 2011|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — An appointee of  former Gov. Pete Wilson wasted more than $51,000 hobnobbing with celebrities — attending events including the Golden Globe Awards, World Magic Awards and a Julio Iglesias concert — while claiming he was recruiting for an anti-stigma program at the Department of Mental Health, a state audit said Thursday.

Arthur Kassel, a Beverly Hills resident who served as a "special assistant" to the department's director, denied squandering his time on the state payroll, even though none of the celebrities he talked to ever did a public event or radio ad shedding light on the stigma attached to mental illness.

According to state auditor Elaine Howle, Kassel's expenses and the salary he earned while attending such events were not money well-spent. Neither Kassel nor his supervisor, her report said, "could identify any measurable benefit that the state garnered as a result of … interaction with celebrities at social and entertainment events in the name of Mental Health's anti-stigma program."

Instead, Howle wrote, the department  "wasted at least $51,244 in state funds in 2009 — the one-year period that we examined."

The audit did not identify Kassel, who recently stepped down from his post, by name, referring only to a "senior official."  But Kassel confirmed he was interviewed by auditor-investigators about his work.

Noting that money to move forward with the program was never budgeted, Kassel said: "People who have mental illnesses have no voice. We were hoping, if the budget ever got fixed in California, that we would be able to do a star-studded show to tell people what the problems are."

The audit also said Kassel's state work overlapped with his volunteer service as a "special advisor to a county sheriff."

Kassel said he is an advisor to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and is a reserve deputy sheriff.  Steve Whitmore, a Baca spokesman, said Kassel is an unpaid part of the sheriff's kitchen cabinet, " a loose-knit group of friends the sheriff sometimes consults," who has helped recruit high-profile people to participate in an annual golf tournament for the sheriff's youth foundation.

Howle recommended that Kassel repay any money "for workdays on which he did not actually perform work for the state." But since leaving the $75,000-a year job, Kassel said, he has not been asked to make any reimbursement.

Gov. Jerry Brown declined to comment.

According to the audit, Kassel received the post in the waning days of the Wilson administration.

"In 1998 the governor, who was about to leave office, contacted the Mental Health executive and asked him whether he had a position at Mental Health that he could fill with the senior official," the report said. "The executive told the governor that he had such a position, and the governor appointed the senior official."

A spokesman for Wilson said that Kassel was one of his appointees but that the former governor did not recall playing a direct role in getting him the Mental Health Department job — it had been handled by a subordinate.

Kassel started off being the department's liaison with law enforcement agencies and in charge of security programs. Later his duties were expanded to recruiting celebrities for the anti-stigma program, even though it was "at a standstill due to a lack of funding," the report said.

As special assistant to the department director, Kassel was provided a car for travel to meetings and other events and given "significant discretion" in deciding what he would do, the audit said.

"Our investigation found," the audit said, "that of the 227 days that the senior official reported working in 2009, on 27 of those days (12%) the senior official only listed as work activities his attendance at social and entertainment events to interact with celebrities."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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