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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

CAL FIRE Secret Fund Paid For Beach Resort Conference

California fire funds paid for GPS units, Pismo Beach conference

By Kevin Yamamura

A California fire account hidden from state lawmakers paid for $22,000 in metal detectors,$30,000 in GPS units – and $33,000 for a conference at a Pismo Beach resort, according to a spreadsheet released Tuesday showing expenses dating back to 2011.

Since 2005, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection directed a share of high-dollar wildfire settlements to an off-budget fund managed by the California District Attorneys Association, the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott told The Bee on Tuesday he never knew the $3.66 million fund was cloaked from state leaders and the Department of Finance. Cal Fire froze the account last year and scheduled it for dissolution in February at the request of the prosecutors' group.

"I had no way of knowing whether Finance did or did not know about it," Pimlott said. "It was started in 2005."

The Department of Finance and state lawmakers didn't know about the Wildland Fire Investigation Training and Equipment Fund, and they never tracked the money in the state budget. Finance officials are now conducting an audit of the "WiFiter" account, while the Joint Legislative Audit Committee plans to hold a hearing to examine accounts funded by legal settlements.

Pimlott said he first learned of its off-book nature when a reporter questioned the department more than a week ago, after which he said he notified the Department of Finance.

The Cal Fire controversy comes after The Bee reported last summer that the state Department of Parks and Recreation hid millions of dollars from state finance officials for years.

The Cal Fire account was designed to help fire investigators and prosecutors at various state and local agencies, according to spokeswoman Janet Upton. Since 2005, the fund has paid for conference travel, as well as GPS vehicle trackers, storage sheds, cameras and computers, among other equipment, according to a spreadsheet and audit documents.

Funds came from a variety of businesses facing allegations that they were to blame for past wildfires. The biggest payment was $794,763 from Sempra Energy in 2011 related to 2007 fires in the San Diego region.

Asked why conferences and equipment couldn't be paid out of Cal Fire's general fund budget – projected to be $678 million next fiscal year – Upton said cutbacks made it difficult to fund specialized training and equipment for high-level fire investigations.

"At some point you have to cut conferences," she said. "If they were funded by the general fund, they were going to be cut first."

In 2012, the account paid for several training sessions in locales as varied as Sonoma and Visalia. The coastal conference at the Pismo Beach resort was a four-day training session that taught officials from across the state everything from litigation skills to records retrieval, Upton said.

She said Cal Fire has a contract to serve as Pismo Beach's fire department, and that the resort was the only hotel there to provide a "state rate."

Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, called Tuesday for a criminal investigation into state officials behind the account.

"Hiding funds outside the state system with an organization that is profiting from the account simply reeks of wrongdoing and demands to be looked into," Gaines said in a statement.

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Original story at Sacramento Bee Link

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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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