Deer graze at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
A state program leasing wildlife protection areas to farmers failed to properly spend and report at least $1.7 million in rental income as part of the normal budget process last year, according to an internal state investigation announced Thursday.
The irregularities in the program run by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife follow a string of similar controversies at agencies including the Recreation and Parks Department and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection where money was stashed in off-budget accounts.
Lease revenue collected from farmers using wildlife lands for grazing is supposed to go into the state’s Wildlife Restoration Fund for use in maintaining the lands.
Of the more than 100 lease contracts approved by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, payments on 50 did not go into the official fund. Instead, department supervisors had tenants put money into bank accounts for the agency's office operations, pay office bills directly or buy gift cards that could be used for official expenses, according to Mike Taugher, a department spokesman. Some of the money went to repair roads, buy equipment and construct an office building.
"The investigation is continuing," Taugher said. "So far we have found very little if anything to indicate anybody was motivated by personal gain."
Legislators briefed Thursday by the department voiced concern about the practices and supported the continuing investigation by a working group reporting to the Department of Natural Resources.
“Unfortunately, this is yet another example of people working independently without proper checks and balances” said Assemblyman Adam C. Gray (D-Merced), chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
A report by the state auditor in December found that $5,000 put on Home Depot gift cards by one farmer leasing state land could not be accounted for. Department Director Charlton H. Bonham wrote in a letter to the auditor released Thursday that his office was changing policies to prevent similar problems in the future. "I take these allegations very seriously," Bonham wrote.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife manages more than 1 million acres of fish and wildlife habitat, and about 130,000 of its acres are leased to farmers for grazing and other agricultural uses to help pay for the cost of maintaining the areas.
Bonham separately ordered the more extensive review of leases after determining the problem lease identified by the auditor was not the only case of improper activity, Taugher said.
Over a number of years it appears millions of dollars of lease revenue "was handled outside the state’s processes and controls," he said. "Our people are stretched thin out in the field and they don’t always have sufficient resources to support what they do, but the state has rules for a reason, and one is to prevent abuses."
He declined to say whether anyone has been fired or suspended for mishandling the money, but noted that Bonham had made personnel changes in the agency since he took over in September 2011.
Ratings agency gives California thumbs up
Key Senate panel approves Medi-Cal expansion
Probe urged of agency that regulates hazardous waste