Top Schwarzenegger Staff Travel on Taxpayer's Dime

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty Images/Steve Bronstein
    Expense reports and calendars for 10 high-ranking staff members from Southern California -- including three cabinet members -- show many of the expenses were incurred after the governor issued an executive order a year ago requiring state agencies to reduce travel costs due to California's budget crisis, the Los Angeles Times reported on its Web site late Friday.

    Despite a ban on nonessential travel, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's top administrative officials charged taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars for airfare, hotel stays and meals with virtually no oversight, according to a published report.

    Expense reports and calendars for 10 high-ranking staff members from Southern California -- including three cabinet members -- show many of the expenses were incurred after the governor issued an executive order a year ago requiring state agencies to reduce travel costs due to California's budget crisis, the Los Angeles Times reported on its Web site late Friday.

    John Cruz, the governor's appointments secretary, charged for flights and hotel bills of up to $382 a night on routine trips between his Orange County home and Sacramento. Carrie Lopez, the director of the Department of Consumer Affairs, billed the state transportation costs to attend a Justin Timberlake concert with her daughter.

    And Rosario Marin, head of the State and Consumer Services Agency, reimbursed the state $582 after the newspaper inquired about her flight to Washington to speak at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, an appearance for which she received $1,000.

    "Is anybody at the wheel here?" said Michael Josephson, president of the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles. "The best possible case for this, which is still not a good case, is (that) nobody is providing oversight. ... The worst case is that you have some people who are knowingly taking advantage."

    Officials justified their travel as necessary for state business but some built weekend trips around short meetings. Others charged the state to attend events with no apparent connection to their jobs.

    The Governor's Office indicated the governor's new Cabinet secretary, Victoria Bradshaw, would review travel expenses following the Times' inquiries. The newspaper found some expenses were approved by subordinates.

    Lopez, who attended the Justin Timberlake concert at Staples Center in Los Angeles, attributed her transportation cost to a "meeting" with Sempra Energy executive Debra Reed.

    Sempra paid for the concert tickets but the company's spokeswoman, April Bolduc, said: "We didn't have any business with them."

    Lopez, whose agency is to protect consumers, routinely charged the state for meals while working in Los Angeles -- even when she received the same meals for free. According to her filings with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, Lopez collected $40 for meals and incidentals on June 23, 2007, the same day Bank of America paid $51.64 for her to attend a luncheon.

    The same happened Sept. 2, 2007 when Sempra spent $216.02 on her dinner, refreshments and a ticket to a Beyonce concert.

    "Sometimes I attend these events and I don't eat," Lopez said.

    The travel costs reflect a departure from Schwarzenegger's policy. When he took office in 2003, he required senior officials to live in Sacramento. Today, the governor himself pays for his commute home by private jet to Los Angeles.

    A few of the officials said they had received permission to continue living in Southern California. The expenses come on top of state salaries of more than $120,000 a year. The three Cabinet members earn over $170,000 a year.

    Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, drives a state car and uses state gasoline for her 180-mile commute between Marin County and the Capitol almost every day. Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said she paid income taxes on the car's estimated $14,000 value last year.

    The state paid $2,110 in January 2008 for former Secretary of Education David Long to travel up and down the state that brought him back home to Riverside County before every weekend. And on April 1, 2008, Marin bought 12-round trip tickets on Southwest Airlines at a cost of $3,108 so she could fly from Burbank, about 20 miles from her home, to Sacramento at the beginning of every week.

    David Nolte, a Los Angeles accountant, said employees can be liable for income taxes if they arrange meetings in order to be reimbursed for what otherwise would be personal costs.

    "That's really no different than saying, 'I'm going to Hawaii for a vacation,' and spending 10 minutes at a meeting in Hawaii, and having my employer pay for a round-trip airfare," Nolte said.