Report cites trips to nearby cities that could have been driven and flights carrying non-Highway Patrol passengers.

By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 23, 2008

SACRAMENTO -- State auditors questioned the California Highway Patrol in a report Tuesday about a costly executive airplane that auditors say was used to transport non-agency personnel and make trips that were either unnecessary or could have been made more economically by car.

The report by state Auditor Elaine Howle also said the CHP spent an extra $11.4 million in motorcycle maintenance and other expenses because two existing contracts were voided because of an employee's conflict of interest.

The audit comes at a time when state officials are scrambling to cover a potential $14-billion state budget gap, and Howle's disclosures Tuesday sparked anger among legislators.

"This is a deeply troubling audit," said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety Committee. "Millions of dollars have been squandered. More important, trust in the management and operation of this agency has been squandered."

CHP Commissioner Michael Brown said his department has taken steps to address the audit findings. They included drafting new standards, instituting checklists and providing additional training aimed at avoiding procurement problems.

The aircraft, an eight-passenger Beechcraft King Air turboprop, which the agency no longer has, was intended for use by CHP command staff and personnel on official business. However, auditors raised questions about a number of flights in 2006 and 2007.

"The purposes of some flights did not seem prudent," the audit stated.

Among other flights logged by the agency, two trips close to the CHP's headquarters were cited in the audit. In both cases, a car would have been the better choice, the audit said.

On one of those excursions, CHP personnel flew a round trip to a Modesto officer's funeral.

On the other flight, the CHP commissioner flew a round trip to Oakland for a radio interview, which auditors said could have been done by telephone.

Driving to the two locations and back would have cost the state $150.

The hourly cost of using the King Air was $1,528, so "the cost of flying the King Air was at least $1,980 for these two round trips, more than 13 times the cost of driving," the audit said.

The audit found that for 16 of the 69 flights in 2006, "the purpose of the flight was not aligned well with the CHP's function, as its policy dictates, or for state business."

In one case, the commissioner's wife accompanied her husband on a round-trip flight between Sacramento and Burbank to attend a function held by a nonprofit organization affiliated with the CHP.

The commissioner later reimbursed the state $254, the cost of a commercial flight.

In another case, the CHP used the plane to transport from Oregon the family of an officer killed while on duty to the memorial service and the subsequent sentencing hearings of the responsible motorist.

That use of the plane "was not the best use of a state resource," the audit found, adding that 12 flights in 2006 transported the family members at a cost of $24,000.

Brown defended the use of the plane to help family members of a slain officer, saying it helped with healing.

The audit pointed out that the CHP itself questioned the cost of the aircraft during a 2005 internal review, yet failed to act in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

"More than two years passed before [CHP officials] transferred the aircraft to another entity -- costing the CHP about $300,000 annually," the state audit said.

In the case of the motorcycle contract, the CHP's Brown called the situation "frustrating."

The Department of General Services voided contracts for 685 motorcycles worth $13.7 million after finding that the General Services employee who oversaw the acquisitions from a BMW dealership had been paid thousands of dollars by the dealership to provide disc jockey services -- a clear conflict of interest, according to Beth Mills, a General Services spokeswoman.

The audit also found that the CHP failed to fully justify a decision to buy 9,700 guns of a specific brand for $6.6 million rather than seek competitive bids.

Auditors said they were especially concerned because the CHP's own internal gun experts raised safety issues about the gun that was purchased.

patrick.mcgreevy@ latimes.com