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Senator Says Road Votes, Dealership Are Conflict

Times Staff Writer

State Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti said Tuesday that San Diego businessman J.T. (Tom) Hawthorne should resign from the California Transportation Commission because Hawthorne has a conflict of “enormous proportions” when he votes to finance San Diego highway projects.

The Times reported Sunday that Hawthorne, who owns San Diego County’s exclusive dealership for new Caterpillar construction equipment, has voted to finance millions of dollars in highway and trolley construction projects that were later awarded to companies doing business with his dealership. Of the $55.8 million approved by Hawthorne and now under contract in the county, $51.6 million worth--or 92%--was awarded to his business customers.

Hawthorne and his eight colleagues on the commission vote to finance the projects, but they are prohibited from selecting which company will perform the work.

State law forbids any public official from taking part in a governmental decision if it is “reasonably foreseeable” that the outcome will financially affect him or a source of his income, such as a business customer.

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“It strikes me that there is a conflict of interest and, in fact, considering the amount of dollars and the projects involved, the conflict is of enormous proportions,” Roberti told The Times on Tuesday. The Los Angeles Democrat heads the Senate Rules Committee, which scrutinizes gubernatorial appointments before they are submitted to the full Senate for confirmation.

“The fact that Hawthorne is the sole distributor of Caterpillar products (in San Diego County), in my mind, makes the issue more than foreseeable,” Roberti said. “It’s almost inevitable that clients will benefit.

“Frankly, I think Mr. Hawthorne should resign from the Transportation Commission. His votes are too inextricably interwoven with his own business.”

Roberti said he may ask the state Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate the matter within the next few days. First, he said, he wants to review the tapes and files from Hawthorne’s appearance before the Senate Rules Committee.

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A spokeswoman for the FPPC declined to say whether an investigation is being conducted.

Hawthorne said Tuesday he has “no intent on resigning.” He said he plans to attend a commission meeting Thursday in Sacramento, where he and his eight colleagues will vote on how to spend $975 million for construction projects over the coming fiscal year.

“I’m sorry the senator feels that way about it,” Hawthorne said. “My efforts are so dedicated to doing the right thing for the state Transportation Commission. I have the best insight and something to add to the commission.

“I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m sure I haven’t done anything wrong.”

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Hawthorne, 56, owns Hawthorne Equipment Co., the only authorized Caterpillar dealership in San Diego County, and Hawthorne Rent-It Service, an equipment rental firm. He is a prominent San Diego County Republican fund-raiser who served as Gov. George Deukmejian’s San Diego County co-finance chairman in the 1981 gubernatorial campaign.

Hawthorne’s business connections were no secret when Deukmejian appointed him to a four-year term on the transportation commission in February, 1984. The state Senate unanimously confirmed him four months later.

But Roberti said Tuesday he did not remember Hawthorne’s confirmation hearing, something that leads him to believe that the full extent of Hawthorne’s business dealings was unknown during the Senate proceedings.

“I seriously doubt that we would have known that he is the exclusive Caterpillar dealer in San Diego,” Roberti said. “I sure would have remembered the hearings. Even if we had ended up confirming him, it would have been far more controversial, asking for a lot of explanations.”

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A source close to the Rules Committee told The Times on Tuesday that a transcript of Hawthorne’s confirmation proceedings shows no discussion of his ownership of the Caterpillar dealership. Hawthorne was simply listed as owner of the Hawthorne Equipment Co., the source said.

Confirmation hearings for transportation commissioners traditionally focus on appointees who own large tracts of undeveloped land, the value of which could be greatly enhanced by the routing of highways, the source said.

Sen. Bill Craven (R-Oceanside), also on the Rules Committee, said the question of Hawthorne’s business never came up during the confirmation hearings.

Craven said he did not consider Hawthorne’s votes a conflict and said he would be “somewhat reticent to commit toward resignation.”

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But Craven said he would favor a “ruling by the attorney general to see if there is a conflict, whether obvious or subtle. A ruling by the top law enforcement official in the state would clarify the question at hand.”

Roberti said he did not believe any possible conflict by Hawthorne was “insidious” or necessarily obvious to senators who confirmed him. He said Hawthorne should resign “if for no other reason than based on how this played out . . . it’s just too large a number of contracts that have been entered into or clients of his that have benefited.”

Hawthorne should resign, Roberti said, because the “public should have the assurance that when highways are constructed, they are constructed out of need and proper priority-setting. That just never is a clear case when somebody has received substantial benefit.”


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