The State Worker

Troubled tax board needs appointed chief counsel, member says

A member of the California tax board that’s under sanctions from Gov. Jerry Brown wants the state’s attorney general to appoint an outside lawyer to review internal legal opinions that allow its elected leaders to steer resources to their own projects.

Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma included that recommendation in a letter she sent to Sen. Richard Roth, one of the lawmakers leading investigations into a tax agency that collects $60 billion a year in revenue.

Ma previously called for Brown to appoint a public trustee to manage the agency after an audit revealed questionable accounting and a weak governance structure that permitted elected board members to “redirect” civil servants to assignments that had “little nexus” to the tax board’s mission.

Past legal opinions from the board have permitted activities that drew scrutiny from the auditors, such as expensive women’s empowerment conferences and events that offer tax preparation assistance to low-income families.

“This reflects the lack of priority and urgency to protect the agency and board members from liability and encouraged the misuse of taxpayer dollars,” Ma wrote in the letter.

The Board of Equalization is not responsible for collecting income tax. Some of its recent personal income tax assistance events have grown in scale and featured advertisements that appear to promote elected members.

Her letter also includes her suggestions for the powers she’d like to see elected members of the Board of Equalization retain if the Legislature adopts laws that would change the agency’s structure, such as setting policy and investigating “reported abuses of taxpayers.”

Brown earlier this month asked Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate the Board of Equalization. Becerra has received Brown’s letter and is reviewing it, according to his press office. Under Ma’s plan, Becerra also would appoint the chief counsel.

Brown also asked the Legislature to address the recent Board of Equalization audit by June. Roth, D-Riverside, last week questioned the agency’s executives during a hearing. Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, is leading the investigation in the lower house. Neither lawmaker has yet described the changes he’d like to see.

During a visit to The Bee Capitol Bureau this week, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said lawmakers had “heard rumors” about the Board of Equalization before the audit’s release. With Brown’s request and and the audit, he said “it’s incumbent on us to act.”


Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at