GOP legislators want feds to investigate fire fund
California Republican legislators want the U.S. attorney to investigate the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for putting $3.6 million from legal settlements in an off-budget account.
In their letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, the GOP legislators said the state attorney general had authorized sending the money to the California District Attorneys Assn. Brown served as attorney general from 2007 to 2011.
The letter follows a story in The Times that said that from 2005 to 2012, Cal Fire placed funds with the no-profit attorneys' group to use for training and equipment. Cal Fire regulations say the money is supposed to be sent to the state general fund.
"This subterfuge money has been spent on a wide array of questionable expenditures that has nothing to do with reimbursing the state for firefighting costs," the GOP legislators wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to Brown.
The attorney general's office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
A joint Assembly and state Senate committee announced last week that it will conduct a hearing to determine the extent California agencies are using off-budget accounts to hold money outside the state system.
The state Department of Finance has begun its audit of the fund, which is expected to take about two months.
"While millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been hidden in this secret fund, cash-strapped local fire safety councils are scrambling to find money to provide preventive services such as fuel reduction and forest thinning," the letter stated.
Senate Republican leader Bob Huff and Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway also sent a letter last week to Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris asking that she refer the matter to the U.S. attorney.
After questions from The Times about the fund, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott notified the state Natural Resources agency, which has oversight of Cal Fire and the Department of Finance.
Cal Fire's own internal audit discovered problems with the fund, raising questions whether it was allowed. However, many of the critical comments were dropped from the audit's final version.
The scrutiny follows similar revelations that the state Department of Parks and Recreation hid $20 million as budget cuts were forcing the closure of parks. Although the Department of Finance looked for other secret funds, they did not find Cal Fire's account with the prosecutors' association.
-- Jeff Gottlieb
Photo: A Cal Fire firefighter mans a hose line to help control a 50–acre fire. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)