Monday, March 02, 2009

The 'Free Rides' Story: Petty Cash but Major Fallout

One of the most widely read stories on the Los Angeles Times web site during the past few days involves a California state government matter of picayune financial proportions. But it scored extraordinarily high on the public outrage scale.

It is a story that confirmed all the worst suspicions of a cynical public. And it has a lesson in it for state officials, elected and otherwise, including those at the $3 billion state stem cell agency.

The key actors in the Times “free rides” story are top officials on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's staff. Here is the what reporter Michael Rothfeld wrote,
“Over the last two years, as California has slashed services and scrambled to pay bills, top administration officials have made free use of government expense accounts with little oversight and, in some cases, no documentation, The Times has found.

“Together, they have spent tens of thousands of dollars on state-funded trips between Sacramento and the areas where they live, justifying the travel as necessary for state business. Some built weekend trips around one short meeting, and some charged the state to attend events with no apparent connection to their jobs. Often their expense reports were approved by subordinates.

“Many of the costs were incurred after the governor issued an executive order a year ago that state agencies avoid all nonessential travel due to California's fiscal emergency. State law allows employees to charge taxpayers only for activities on behalf of the public, which do not include commuting or events related to their personal lives."
These types of stories are regulars on government beats. But the dollars involved are relatively trivial when compared to such things as the state's $42 billion budget crisis.

I have written my share of them over the years and edited them as well. While reporting for United Press International in Sacramento, I wrote one such story that infuriated then Assemblyman John Burton of San Francisco, chairman of the Legislature's Joint Rules Committee . He wrote a letter, with tongue barely in cheek, ousting the UPI bureau from the Capitol.

I have shied away from such stories on this web site because I am now free of the journalistic demand for them. They have high outrage potential and high readership, but limited impact on what is important in terms of dollars and cents and public policy issues. They do, however, demonstrate an egregious sense of public-be-damned entitlement on the part of the officials. And they do provide fodder for their foes and the enemies of the enterprises involved.

Only a handful of these stories have appeared in the mainstream media involving CIRM. They chronicled the use of limos, expensive meals and so forth. It would be easy to gin up more by examining expense reports at the agency, such as those involving the trip by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein to Australia in 2007. He combined his honeymoon with an appearance at an international stem cell convention. We chose not to write about that at the time because of the relatively minor sums involved.

However, it is easy for an agency isolated in a tiny corner of government, unfettered by the usual oversight by the governor and legislature, to slip into bad habits. Some would argue that CIRM management salary scales, which top out at $508,750 annually, are part of those bad habits.

The salaries do not bother me as much as some. What is worrisome is a sense from the agency that the some of the folks there do not grasp how easy it is for an apparently trivial matter to trigger blowback that could seriously damage not only CIRM, but the entire human embryonic stem cell effort.

The Los Angeles Times story is just one example of how a small issue can trigger public outrage. And the result for the governor's aides is that the report of the petty chiseling not only outweighs, but it overwhelms the good work that those public servants perform.

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