(Victor Valley) – Earlier this year, Senator Steve Knight (R-Antelope Valley) authored Senate Bills 1074 and 1075, which were signed into law late last week. Both measures stem from a State Audit that confirmed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) illegally diverted $3.7 million of taxpayer funds into a hidden account called the Wildland Fire Fund. The measures hold state employees accountable if they hide state funds from the public, require more transparency within the department, and require all funds in the secret account be returned to the general fund.
Slush funds have become all too common in state government. The Cal Fire audit was published a little more than a year after the discovery of the $54 million State Parks hidden fund last year. “This was a clear abuse of the public trust,” said Senator Knight. “State Employees set up an off-the-books slush fund and used the taxpayer’s money for equipment that is now missing and a conference at a Pismo Beach resort among other misuses. These measures are the first step in restoring the public’s trust. We have to ensure this type of waste and abuse never happens again. If it does, public servants that abuse their power and violate the law will now be subject to real consequences.”
SB 1074 will prevent the misuse of taxpayer dollars by adding criminal punishments for state employees who funnel state money into hidden accounts. Operating such slush funds is already illegal, but previously there had been no punishment for employees that knowingly divert public money into hidden private accounts. SB 1074 will make such actions a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
“Cal Fire controls $1.3 billion in taxpayer dollars and should be held to the highest of standards,” added Knight. “Californians deserve better than to find out from the local newspaper that their government is misusing their hard-earned money. The Legislature needs to be a better watchdog to uncover and prevent improper and illegal behavior by state government officials.”
SB 1075 imposes annual reporting requirements on Cal Fire in an effort to increase government transparency. The required report to the Legislature each year will include information on the settled cases for the prior year including the name, date, location and total costs of the fire, the value of the settlement and other related information. SB 1075 also requires that all funds remaining in the off-the-books Wildland Fire Fund be returned to the General Fund where they belong.
Both Senate Bills 1074 and 1075 were signed by the Governor on August 22 and will go into effect on January 1, 2015.