In a strongly worded letter, the state’s political watchdog agency has warned that it will take legal action against California Transportation Commissioner J. T. (Tom) Hawthorne if he continues to vote on San Diego County highway construction projects that materially benefit his private business as the area’s exclusive Caterpillar heavy equipment dealer.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission also found that a number of votes by Hawthorne during his first 18 months on the Transportation Commission posed a conflict of interest, since his business customers received 90% of the $55.6 million in San Diego-area projects. The agency declined, however, to disclose the number of conflicts or to penalize him up to $2,000 for each violation, saying that he erroneously but in good faith believed that he was not violating the law .
Hawthorne said Tuesday that the FPPC warning has convinced him to abstain from voting on future San Diego County transportation projects. If the restriction hampers his commission duties, Hawthorne said he will resign.
“That’s yet to be determined,” said Hawthorne, an influential Republican appointed in February, 1984, by Gov. George Deukmejian. “If I find that it does impair my ability, I’ll step aside for someone else to do a better job. . . . I’m going to wait and see how that develops.”
The FPPC investigation began after The Times revealed last June that 24 of 39 San Diego County highway and trolley construction projects were awarded to firms that rented or bought heavy equipment from Hawthorne’s Caterpillar dealership.
In all, Hawthorne customers received $51.6 million of the $55.6 million in construction projects approved by Hawthorne and his colleagues between February, 1984, and June, 1985, The Times reported.
Hawthorne has said that his votes posed no conflict of interest because he and other commissioners only decide how much and when state money will be allocated for a transportation project, not which company will be awarded the businesses. The California Department of Transportation takes bids on the projects and selects the construction companies.