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California taxpayers' money wasted, misused, state auditor finds

Gov. Jerry Brown is alerted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in waste and fraud, complicating his plan to persuade voters to extend expiring tax increases.

January 19, 2011|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
  • State Auditor Elaine Howle in November 2010. Howle reported Tuesday that hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were misspent last year.
State Auditor Elaine Howle in November 2010. Howle reported Tuesday that… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento — It's the kind of stuff that riles taxpayers, especially when their new governor wants them to vote to extend expiring tax increases.

California State Auditor Elaine Howle reported Tuesday that investigations by her office have found that hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were misspent last year.

Among the cases she highlights is that of an incompetent prison psychiatrist who should have been quickly removed from the payroll but lingered there for three years while the state "investigated." The cost to taxpayers, according the Howle: at least $366,656 as the employee received his full salary, was granted two merit-based raises and was given 226 hours in leave — worth $29,149 — that was paid to him when he left.

"Through our investigations, we found patients placed at risk and state funds wasted during the continued employment of an incompetent psychiatrist, misuse of state resources, theft of registration fees, and failure to protect the security of confidential documents," Howle wrote to Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday.

Brown has said he plans to target waste and fraud as part of efforts to eliminate a $25-billion budget shortfall. His office is reviewing Howle's findings as part of a broader search for ways to cut costs, said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor.

"Given California's fiscal challenges, it is critical that we continue to look within state government to ensure taxpayer dollars are not being wasted or misused," Westrup said.

Howle's report also said a supervisor at Kern Valley State Prison allowed an employee to take two-hour breaks at the end of each shift, paying the worker $23,937 for 1,160 hours during which he was not working.

At a separate agency, the state failed to promptly pay $10,567 to victims of violent crime after an employee removed 468 confidential claim documents and stored them at her home. The woman's supervisor told investigators he believed the worker may have removed the papers from her office "to avoid doing work associated with them," the report states.

Other findings included:

* The California Conservation Corps circumvented competitive-bidding requirements when it purchased $64,666 worth of clothing and boots by splitting the purchase into three orders.

* A manager with the Department of General Services improperly used state vehicles for his daily commute for nine years, costing the state at least $12,379.

* Caltrans paid two employees $2,080 for hours they did not work because they repeatedly left work early to teach classes at a community college.

The amount of squandered money Howle identified is small in comparison with the state's budget deficit, but it is important that Brown is seen going after fraud and waste as he tries to win voter approval in June for a five-year extension of tax increases passed in 2009, one expert said.

"People expect Jerry Brown to find ways to cut the budget, any way possible," said Peter Dreier, a political science professor at Occidental College.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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