SACRAMENTO — At least a dozen California lawmakers repaired or upgraded their state-provided vehicles at taxpayers’ expense in the final weeks before the one-of-its-kind perk was ending, then later bought those vehicles for personal use.
The improvements ranged from cosmetic changes such as fixing dents and replacing wheel covers, to getting tires, multipoint inspections and new parts such as fuel pumps that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Some had the vehicles they would soon buy inspected at no cost to them, while others had last-minute work done under warranty, according to state maintenance records obtained by The Associated Press through public records requests.
Officials at the state Senate and Assembly said they did not ask lawmakers to have their vehicles repaired or upgraded before the state put them up for sale to independent dealers a year ago.
“Essentially what they did was get all their repairs done on the state’s dime before they bought it,” said Philip Ung, a spokesman for the government watchdog group Common Cause.
The sale was the last step in ending a program dating to the 1950s that had been criticized as an unreasonable benefit for legislators who in recent years have slashed the state’s social services safety net to stem billion-dollar budget deficits.
The AP has previously reported on various aspects of the perk, including that the Legislature had spent $5 million for one year’s fleet and refused to publicly release the mileage or where the lawmakers drove the vehicles.
California was the only state that provided vehicles to its rank-and-file lawmakers for unlimited use, until the state Citizens Compensation Commission voted in April 2011 to do away with the benefit. Legislators were told to turn in their vehicles by Dec. 1, 2011.
Of 64 lawmakers who had state-financed repairs after the commission’s decision, 37 purchased their vehicles. That includes 16 of 18 senators and 21 of 46 Assembly members.
Many sought routine maintenance, such as oil changes, that accounted for a portion of the more than $78,000 the state spent to repair, clean and upgrade the state-provided vehicles in the final nine months of the program.
Others did much more shortly before the sale, according to the documents. The AP also paid for records from the Department of Motor Vehicles to help determine which lawmakers had bought their vehicles.
Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, had $5,984 worth of repairs. He had a dent in the rear bumper fixed, the power steering and brakes replaced, and a detailed cleaning performed on a 2005 Chevy Tahoe between August and November 2011.
Much of the work was done seven weeks before the vehicle was sold to a dealer for $11,000 in December. The former Senate minority leader bought it for $12,681 in campaign funds as he prepared to leave office for an unsuccessful bid for Congress this year.
Gary Winuk, chief of the Fair Political Practices Commission’s Enforcement Division, said Dutton’s use of campaign money raises legal issues because the vehicle was re-registered to Dutton as an individual instead of to his campaign committee.
Dutton said he thought he acted legally because the money was intended to cover his expenses as a state lawmaker. He said he saved taxpayers money in the long run by driving a used vehicle.
He said a lot of work had to be done on the vehicle because it was closing in on 100,000 miles. Since he bought it, Dutton added, he has had to make significant repairs, including fixing the transmission and speedometer.
Among those whose cars had large bills were two Democratic assemblymen, Tony Mendoza of Artesia and Isadore Hall of Compton.
Mendoza charged taxpayers for nearly $2,300 worth of repairs to his 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid in the final two months the state owned it. That included more than $1,200 for four new tires, an oil change and a “multi-point inspection” about a month before he bought it.
Hall had the state pay for $2,442 worth of work on his 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, including new tires and a cooling system flush, before he bought it. Nearly $1,700 of the work was done in the final month the state owned it.
Other lawmakers took their vehicles into the shop just days before they were required to turn them in.
Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, had a “55 point vehicle inspection” on her 2007 Toyota Prius Hybrid just three days before she was to surrender the vehicle she later bought. The $827 billed to taxpayers that day also included a new water pump, drive belt and update to the vehicle’s GPS system.
Twenty-five days before his 2008 GMC Yukon Hybrid was sold, Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Corona, replaced two tires, the windshield wipers and the automatic transmission fluid at a cost to taxpayers of $887.
Mendoza, Hall and Miller did not respond to repeated requests from AP for comment, while Corbett declined comment.
Democratic Sen. Ron Calderon of Monterey Park special ordered “2 vogue type wheel center caps” for $80, among other late maintenance that cost taxpayers more than $500. His spokesman, Rocky Rushing, said the work on the 2006 Cadillac “was necessary or scheduled maintenance.”
“They wanted to frontload all the maintenance and repairs,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “This was another example of ‘let’s make the taxpayers carry the freight on this.'”
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