SAN FRANCISCO — A California state district engineer approved $3.9 million in payments to the firm that employed the worker’s spouse and the state public health department improperly reimbursed an official $75,000 for driving to work, according to an audit released Thursday.
The findings are the result of whistleblower tips investigated within the first six months of the year. The report details seven substantiated investigations from several state agencies, and identifies $400,000 in undisclosed gifts and wasted money due to improper travel expenses and mismanagement.
The amount may be small in a state with a $122 billion budget, but State Auditor Elaine Howle said the examples serve to deter wrongdoing. “If state employees know that others are watching and reporting on improper activities, they will think twice about engaging in improper activities,” she said.
The audit, for example, found that a peace officer with the state parks department, which has had financial troubles, improperly accepted 24 pairs of designer sunglasses valued at $4,800 from a vendor that does business with the agency.
And a parks supervisor improperly used a work-issued cell phone to sell beauty products on the side and talk to out-of-state relatives, according to the report. The supervisor has since purchased a personal cell phone and the agency says it will seek $185 for phone charges.
Auditors could not identify a cost to the state by the actions of the district engineer who violated conflict-of-interest law when the engineer, from 2010 through 2015, participated in decisions that financially benefited an engineering firm that employed the engineer’s spouse.
They found the engineer approved dozens of claims seeking payment by the engineering firm totaling $3.9 million. Supervisors in the drinking water program knew of the spouse’s employment, but did not think it would affect the engineer’s work, according to the report.
The drinking water program started with the California Department of Public Health but moved to the Water Resources Control Board in July 2014. A spokesman for the water board said his department has always separated financial payments from project decisions, and sought to bring the drinking water program in line when they identified the differences.
The public health department did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Most of the money identified stemmed from the failure of the California Department of Transportation to collect or bill nearly $315,000 for rent and utilities from tenants of a mobile home park purchased in 2010 as part of a freeway improvement project.
Caltrans said the agents responsible for the property were overwhelmed. Director Malcolm Dougherty said in a statement Thursday that the agency has assigned a full-time agent to address the issues.
Auditors also identified nearly $75,000 reimbursed to a public health official for meals, mileage, lodging and parking related to the official going to work for nearly four years. The official lived in Sonoma County but started managing an office in Sacramento in 2012 some 90 miles away.
Auditors recommended that the agency implement policies and train supervisors to reimburse only appropriate travel expenses.