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GOP lawmakers want probe of Cal Fire over off-budget account

State Republican legislators want federal prosecutors to investigate Cal Fire for placing $3.6 million from legal settlements with the California District Attorneys Assn.

February 05, 2013|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times

State Republican legislators want federal prosecutors to investigate the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for putting $3.6 million from legal settlements into an off-budget account.

"This subterfuge money has been spent on a wide array of questionable expenditures that has nothing to do with reimbursing the state for firefighting costs," the legislators wrote in a Friday letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, asking him to request an investigation by the U.S. attorney.

The letter follows a story in The Times that found that from 2005 to 2012, Cal Fire, as the department is commonly known, placed funds with the California District Attorneys Assn. to use for training and equipment. Cal Fire regulations say the money is supposed to be sent to the state general fund.

The legislators said the state attorney general had authorized sending the money to the California District Attorneys Assn. Brown served as attorney general from 2007 to 2011.

Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the current attorney general, denied that claim.

"The California Department of Justice did not endorse placement of settlement money into an account outside of the budget process," Gledhill said. "Atty. Gen. [Kamala] Harris has directed her office to examine the state's settlement practices to ensure all settlements are not only lawful, but fully transparent to the public."

The state Department of Finance has begun an audit of the fund, which is expected to take about two months, spokesman H.D. Palmer said.

In addition, a joint Assembly and state Senate committee announced last week that it will conduct a hearing to determine the extent California agencies are using off-budget accounts to hold money outside the state system.

The GOP letter was signed by 25 members of the Senate and Assembly. They also are using the issue to call for an end to a law the Legislature passed last year requiring rural homeowners who rely on state firefighters to pay $150 a year for fire prevention services.

"It is clear that the state has not been judicious in its use of taxpayer dollars," the lawmakers' letter said. "The state must stop these outrageous duplicitous tactics."

Senate Republican leader Robert Huff of Diamond Bar and Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway of Tulare sent a letter last week asking the attorney general to refer the matter to the U.S. attorney. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Sacramento said no information about the fund had been brought to her office.

Janet Upton, a Cal Fire spokeswoman, said the agency would welcome an investigation.

"We stand by the intent of this fund and have many examples of good things it's done that benefit the taxpayers of this state," she said.

Cal Fire's own audit, released in 2009, raised questions about whether the fund was allowed. But many of the critical comments were dropped from the audit's final version.

The scrutiny follows similar revelations that the state Department of Parks and Recreation hid $20 million as budget cuts were forcing the closure of parks. Although the Department of Finance looked for other secret funds, it did not find Cal Fire's account with the prosecutors' association.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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