Land Acquisition Group Caught Misusing Taxpayer Money

Published September 1, 2004

In another setback for government land acquisition advocates, a California conservancy group, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, was recently caught mismanaging millions of dollars in voter-approved bond money that was supposed to be spent on acquiring and restoring parkland.

According to the Los Angeles Times on June 6, California Department of Finance auditors issued a report on March 24 documenting that the conservancy group “does not adequately manage, control, or oversee” $115 million in bond funds given it by the state. The auditors accused the organization of “funneling away money to pay for legal fees, office expenses, conferences, cars, travel, vacation and sick pay, and ‘excessive’ overhead charges.”

“In our opinion, they’re not spending funds in line with the bond measures,” said Office of State Audits and Evaluations chief Samuel Hull. “Some of the things they did I’ve never seen before. They are creative, I’ll give them that.”

According to the audit, the conservancy assesses an extremely high 9 percent “administrative overhead” fee for its land purchases, which has amounted to more than $1.5 million. The auditors report the conservancy’s administrative overhead assessments are a staggering 350 times greater than the overhead of comparable state agencies such as the Coastal Conservancy and the state Department of Fish and Game. Such fees, according to the auditors, are “grossly out of proportion to services provided.”

Specific expenditures cited by the auditors as inappropriate include memberships in VIP airline clubs, hotel room service expenses in excess of state travel allowances, and air travel purchases for the wife of the conservancy’s executive director.

“Propositions 12 and 13 were passed in 2000,” said Patricia Bell Hearst, chairperson of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, which represents homeowners that have been targeted by government land acquisition agencies. “Why did it take 3-1/2 years to look at the books of a state agency that appears to be politically covered by elected politicians who allow a state employee to play ball with taxpayer money?”

Conservancy officials and supporters rejected the findings of the audit. “I don’t know what the numbers are, and I don’t care what the numbers are, frankly,” said conservancy executive director Joseph Edmiston, the administrator whose wife received airfare purchases with state bond money entrusted to the conservancy, according to the audit. “All I know is we are the most successful land acquisition agency in the state of California. It bothers me to be questioned about the way we’re doing business, when what really matters is the end result.”

“I don’t want any crossing of the t’s or dotting of the i’s that aren’t substantive to interfere in any way” with the operation of the conservancy, said conservancy supporter State Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). Kuehl told the Los Angeles Times she had “made that very clear” to state Finance Director Donna Ardulin.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment and Climate News.