The State Worker

Caltrans manager commuted from San Diego to Sacramento for 2 years. Taxpayers paid the bill

The state paid for a Caltrans manager to commute from San Diego to Sacramento for work for two years, according to a California State Auditor’s report published Tuesday.

The manager, who isn’t named in the audit, was reimbursed for about $30,000 in airfare and car rentals plus $12,000 for meals, lodging and other costs from 2016 through 2018, according to the audit.

The state pays for employees’ approved airline, train and car travel by paying vendors directly and it reimburses employees when they spend money on food and lodging more than 50 miles from their headquarters.

The manager was promoted from her San Diego office in February 2016 to a temporary assignment in Sacramento and began commuting regularly from San Diego. Caltrans made the position permanent that September and the manager kept commuting across the state, according to the audit.

“Evidence indicates the manager should have known that her headquarters was Sacramento and that she was not entitled to the travel reimbursements,” the audit states.

The manager circumvented rules to get her long commute paid for, according to the audit. She submitted her expenses to a San Diego-based supervisor, who approved them, even after she started reporting to a division chief in Sacramento, according to the audit.

The Sacramento division chief told auditors she was unaware the manager was being reimbursed for the commute until summer 2017, when the accounting division flagged the payments. She said the manager had told her she planned to stay with family in the Sacramento area.

The division chief didn’t seek to recoup the payments and didn’t stop Caltrans from paying for the manager’s travel to Sacramento. The division chief instead told the manager to do most of her work from San Diego even though her staff was in Sacramento.

“This shift in the manager’s travel pattern appears to have been for her benefit and did not serve the state’s interests,” the audit states.

Then, in December 2017, someone at Caltrans retroactively changed the manager’s headquarters to San Diego from Sacramento. Auditors said they couldn’t determine the basis for the change and that, “of notable concern,” the division chief wasn’t aware of it.

The commuting manager retired in March 2018, according to the audit. Her predecessor and her successor both were based in Sacramento.

The report suggested Caltrans add the report to the former manager’s personnel file, investigate whether the commute payments should have been taxed as fringe benefits, take corrective action against the former San Diego official who approved the payments and increase training on travel expenses.

Caltrans accepted the recommendations and told auditors the department would report on its progress.

“The department has taken immediate action to make sure travel is appropriately assigned and authorized,” Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said in an email. “While, in some instances, long-term travel is a cost-effective tool that gives the department flexibility to assign personnel with the needed skills and expertise to transportation projects around the state rather than hiring a completely new staff, Caltrans is updating its guidelines and training to make sure that travel is assigned appropriately..”

The Caltrans spending was included in an audit of several state agencies in the second half of 2018. The investigations uncovered about $427,000 in inappropriate expenditures, according to the audit.

The audit also found the Department of State Hospitals wasted about $47,800 in state money paying for an administrator to travel regularly to Sacramento after the department promoted him in November 2016.

The department improperly designated the hospital where the administrator worked as the headquarters for the job, even though his predecessor had been based in Sacramento and his immediate subordinates were based there, according to the audit. The audit doesn’t identify the hospital where he was headquartered.

From November 2016 through January 2018, the administrator worked about 19 percent of his days at the designated headquarters and 48 percent in Sacramento. The state paid for his travel, including flights from a suburban airport that were $200 to $300 more expensive than flights from the metropolitan airport where he was technically headquartered, according to the audit.

He worked about 30 percent of his days from home, despite not having a telecommute agreement on file, according to the audit.

“If State Hospitals had designated the administrator’s headquarters as Sacramento as it had for previous administrators in the same position, the state would not have paid for the administrator’s travel,” the audit states. “In addition, State Hospitals’ failure to ascertain the necessity and reasonableness of the administrator’s travel expenses resulted in the administrator failing to use the method of travel that was the least costly or in the state’s best interest. Thus, State Hospitals wasted state funds.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee