Editorial: Cal Fire burns taxpayers by hiding our money

02/04/2013 12:00 AM

02/05/2013 8:20 AM

A second state department is caught hiding money. Once again, there will be an audit, a legislative hearing and no doubt a "full" investigation.

While full details are emerging, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concealed $3.66 million that should have gone into the general fund.

Its arrogance underscores the larger issue: The money doesn't belong to some bureaucrat with a badge. It belongs to the people.

In a budget that exceeds $130 billion, $3.6 million might be considered dust. Dust or not, the money didn't belong to Cal Fire bureaucrats – as they knew, according to internal documents. The money should have been deposited in the general fund, for the benefit of the entire state.

Starting in 2005, Cal Fire collected the $3.6 million in settlements of lawsuits against property owners who had liability from fires, as was first reported by the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. Attorneys defending Sierra Pacific Industries discovered the cache of money while fighting a suit in which the state seeks to recover costs of quelling the Moonlight fire.

Rather than depositing the money into the general fund as required by law, Cal Fire used it to buy goodies including digital cameras, GPS equipment and metal detectors, and pay, as The Bee's Kevin Yamamura reported, $33,000 for a conference at a Pismo Beach resort.

The California District Attorneys Association, which should have known better, agreed in 2005 to manage the money, in exchange for payments which totaled more than $370,000 over the seven-plus years.

Cal Fire officials knew months and maybe years ago that what they were doing was wrong, as drafts of early audits showed. They passed up several chances to come clean and hand the money over to the Department of Finance.

Instead, Cal Fire officials clammed up as Department of Finance auditors scoured departments looking for hidden funds last year, in the wake of revelations that the state Department of Parks and Recreation squirreled away more than $20 million.

Cal Fire remained mute as the California attorney general investigated, lightly as it happens, the parks department.

Finally, the District Attorneys Association, whose past leaders showed questionable judgment by entering into the agreement with Cal Fire, severed the arrangement in December after its current leadership learned about it.

Cal Fire clearly should have come forward at that point.

The California Department of Finance has commenced an audit. Auditing is an essential part of budgeting. But so is trust. The Department of Finance relies on the honesty of the myriad of state departments to provide truthful and complete information. In this instance, Cal Fire, a department that is responsible for protecting people and property, stumbled badly, and in the process sacrificed trust.

The Bee's past stands

"It seems awfully premature to conclude there was no crime. The attorney general's probe, however limited, found that several high-ranking state parks officials committed 'conscious and deliberate' acts to hide the money for as long as 13 years. The state's Penal Code says that it is a felony for government officials to knowingly keep a false account of public money."

– Jan. 26, 2013

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service