LA Times raises questions about state travel

March 2, 2009 8:18:05 PM PST
There are serious questions about how much some of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) appointees are charging taxpayers for their travel. It seems the expensive travel continued even after the governor banned all non-essential travel due to the state's extreme budget crisis.

The Schwarzenegger Administration is cracking down on its own after the LA Times reported high-ranking staffers took advantage of taxpayer money by putting in for questionable travel reimbursements.

The state has been struggling with a budget crisis for years, yet the expense accounts have little oversight and in some cases, require no documentation.

"We're going to look into it. If there's any employees traveling inappropriately or charging money to the state that they shouldn't be, they will absolutely be dealt with. That should not happen," said Aaron McLear, Governor's Press Secretary.

Carrie Lopez, who lives in Los Angeles, leads the state's Department of Consumer Affairs out of Sacramento.

The Times found she attended a Justin Timberlake concert in LA with her daughter, but listed the trip as a meeting with Sempra Energy, a company which admits to giving her the tickets, but not seeing her that day. Government watchdog groups say it's not just the travel, but also the conflict of interest that's wrong.

"She was taking concert tickets from Sempra Energy, an entity, it's her job to be regulating. So that raises a red flag," said Derek Cressman, from California Common Cause.

In a statement released Monday, Lopez said, it's her job " ... to make state government more accessible to the people in every part of California, and that requires me to travel throughout our great and diverse state."

John Cruz, the Governor's Appointments Secretary, justifies his expenses by claiming travel is necessary to recruit the best candidates for positions on boards and commissions.

The Times found Cruz billed taxpayers for numerous flights between his Orange County home and the Capitol.

That looks like commuting to watchdog groups, especially when some of those Southern California meetings were conveniently on Fridays.

"By arranging it as a flight from Sacramento, it looks like you're trying to double dip and get the taxpayers to try and pay for your commute," said Derek.

"There is no one commuting back and forth to Sacramento. There are people who live in different parts of the state who have meetings here and meetings elsewhere in the state," said McLear.

While the Governor's office insists its budget has been cut by 10-percent, the Times found many more questionable travel expenses. Much of the reimbursements were on top of the staffer's six-figure salaries.

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