The State Worker

Jerome Horton’s staff had larger role in $118,000 furniture buy than he let on

Despite earlier suggesting otherwise, state Board of Equalization member Jerome Horton now says that he and his staff were involved in selecting designer furniture for his Sacramento high-rise office that cost taxpayers $118,000 to purchase and $12,000 to install.

Internal Board of Equalization emails and other documents turned over to The Sacramento Bee under the state’s public records law indicate the same, contradicting Horton’s public and private attempts to blame agency bureaucrats outside of his office for handling the matter without his guidance. His chief of staff, Kari Hammond, also denied knowledge of the matter during an interview in April.

In a recent interview, Horton said that after “looking more deeply into the matter” that he learned that his office did have a role in “picking the color and style, and that’s it.” Neither he nor his staff concerned themselves with price or which vendor got the business because “that’s an administrative function,” Horton said.

In April, the Bee reported on the $118,000 furniture purchase for Horton’s office suite, which included two dozen white-leather-and-walnut chairs at $1,172 each, a matching $2,267 couch and other designer furnishings. They were purchased and delivered in early October to outfit a 21st floor office space on Capitol Mall after Horton had moved up from the ninth floor in the same building.

State law requires departments that purchase new office furniture to do so from the Prison Industry Authority, which among other things trains inmates in carpentry. Records reviewed by The Bee, however, showed that a tax board project manager asked for a waiver to buy Horton’s office furniture from another source.

Horton declined to speak to The Bee for the story, but he sent a May 12 letter saying, among other things, that board members do not control the procurement process.

“(T)he procurement process is governed entirely by the Board’s administrative and facilities staff and DGS management and regulations; and DGS has the final authority for these acquisitions,” Horton wrote.

Horton also sent the four-page letter to the chairs of four legislative budget committees.

The news had broken at an inopportune moment for the agency, which collects more than $60 billion per year in sales taxes and other taxes. The board’s leaders were hoping for a $5 million budget increase next year to hire staff. Instead, they found themselves on the defensive as lawmakers hammered them with questions about the agency’s spending on office leases. On several occasions legislators referenced Horton’s furniture during budget hearings.

One budget subcommittee threatened to lop off $11 million from the tax agency’s budget, before a joint Senate and Assembly committee settled on a proposal that would cut just 11 positions and less than $1 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Horton similarly suggested he had no role in the purchase on May 25, referring to the office-furniture story during a board discussion.

“The perception that members have control over some of these things is just a false perception ... despite what may have been reported in the press,” he said. “And of course, at the end of the day, the chair, the office, whatever, actually belongs to the people of the state of California.”

Numerous internal agency emails reviewed by The Bee show that Horton and his staff picked out the furniture and followed the order’s status through delivery.

On June 19, 2015, for example, Brianna Kitcher, the tax agency’s lead planner on the office furnishings project, exchanged emails with another agency office planner. She wanted to know whether two of Horton’s aides, Eboney Anderson and Sharon White, had signed off on furniture floor plans.

“Did you send the furniture layout below to Eboney and Sharon for approval?” Kitcher asked.

“I assumed the layout had already been discussed with them,” replied Sonia Torres, another planner who was working with Kitcher.

“We should still send the drawing for final approval,” Kitcher emailed back. “This group likes to change things and deny responsibility.”

In an interview, Kitcher said that “like most board members,” Horton and his staff were deeply involved in the particulars.

Kitcher resigned as scrutiny on the board’s spending intensified in late April and May, but she said she did nothing wrong. Kitcher said she merely took the suggestions that Horton’s office gave her and then found “something less expensive and more attractive.”

“(Horton) and his staff were involved with picking out the furniture for his office. I was just doing my job,” Kitcher said, “opening new buildings, getting new furniture for them.”

Her warning that Horton’s staff “likes to change things” proved true in early July, agency emails and documents show.

After administrative staff and the West Sacramento-based furniture vendor, Miles Treaster & Associates, had signed a purchase agreement at the end of June, the agency had to tear it up and start over. Horton’s office, according to agency emails, had decided to go with different furniture.

“They’re changing all the furniture that was ordered. It was competitively bid, so we will need to go back out to bid on the new stuff,” procurement manager Cheryl Blakeway wrote in a July 8 email to a staff member in her unit.

Horton, however, who was board chairman at the time, was scheduled to move into his new offices before the switched furniture order could be delivered. So administrative managers again went to his office for instructions.

“I spoke with the Chairman,” Anderson wrote in a July 8 email to a manager in charge of the agency’s office-planning unit. “We will proceed with the move to the new space as soon as it is move in ready. We will replace the old furniture with the new furniture as soon as it becomes available.”

Horton’s furniture arrived in early October. Kitcher sent an email to White on Oct. 5 to make sure the pieces had arrived in good shape.

“I hope everyone likes their new furniture!” she wrote.

White’s response about an hour later: “Thanks, Brianna, so far so good. :0)”