Hawthorne Won't Give Up Post : Restrictions Limit His Highway Commission Votes

Times Staff Writer

California Transportation Commissioner J.T. (Tom) Hawthorne, warned against voting on San Diego highway and trolley projects because they involve customers of his Caterpillar equipment dealership, says he will not resign from his appointed state position.

In an interview late Thursday, Hawthorne--once hailed as San Diego's advocate on the commission--said he will do everything he can to keep his state post, even if that means staying mum during commission discussions about the timing and funding of San Diego transportation projects.

"I've made up my mind that I'm not going to resign," Hawthorne, 58, said in the offices of his Kearny Mesa dealership. "There are 58 counties (in California) and only nine commissioners. Because I can't vote in one county, that doesn't keep me from doing a statewide job."

The state Fair Political Practices Commission informed Hawthorne last month that he had violated state conflict-of-interest regulations by voting to fund San Diego transportation projects later awarded to firms that either purchased or rented heavy equipment from his dealership. Although the political watchdog agency took no action against him for the past votes, it warned Hawthorne that he faces civil fines as high as $2,000 each time he participates in commission deliberations and votes that concern San Diego projects.

The warning, made in a letter dated April 23 to Hawthorne from FPPC Chief of Enforcement Roger Brown, followed a Times investigation last June that revealed that customers of Hawthorne's heavy equipment firm were the winning bidders on 24 of the 38 San Diego County projects Hawthorne voted to fund during his first 15 months on the commission. The 24 projects represented $51.6 million of the $55.8 million--or 90%--approved for San Diego transportation projects since Hawthorne was appointed to the commission by Gov. George Deukmejian in February, 1984.

The FPPC found that 20% of the business for Hawthorne Machinery Co., which had $70 million in gross sales in 1984, comes from equipment purchases and rentals to perform state construction work. Hawthorne is chairman of the firm's board and owns 97% of its stock. The firm is the county's only dealer for Caterpillar equipment.

Hawthorne had defended his votes on San Diego projects by saying he and other commissioners only decide which local highway or trolley job should be funded and when. Selecting the construction firm to perform the work is left to officials with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

The FPPC saw otherwise. "Because your company is the sole distributor of Caterpillar products in San Diego County, and customers of your business have obtained more than 90% of the funds voted for San Diego projects, it is substantially likely, indeed it is almost a certainty, that any decision to allocate funds for San Diego projects will benefit your business," Brown wrote.

The forcefulness of Brown's letter initially prompted Hawthorne to say he might resign from the commission. The advice caused San Diego acting Mayor Ed Struiksma to lament the loss of Hawthorne's abilities to lobby for local transportation funds. Editorials in The Times, as well as the San Diego Union and Tribune, urged Hawthorne to quit.

But Hawthorne now says he will stay with the commission, even if he has to sidestep San Diego issues. A member of Deukmejian's staff also advised him to carry on, Hawthorne said.

"I feel that if I resign, there may not be another commissioner from San Diego County appointed," he said. "I think I can do more good from where I sit. Los Angeles County doesn't even have a commissioner so there's no assurance that there would be a commissioner to replace me from San Diego."

Hawthorne said he now is consulting with an attorney from the firm of Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye to determine just what he can say during commission discussions about San Diego transportation projects. He said he believes the FPPC letter prohibits him from voting or "lobbying" on local projects.

"Opinion and desire is what I consider lobbying," said Hawthorne. "I look at lobbying in the matter as trying to push what is accomplished. I'm going to refrain from that."

He said he will restrict his comments to "keeping the commission informed of what the facts are and what the needs are" for transportation projects in San Diego County.

For example, he said, if the commissioners are discussing Interstate 8 in Mission Valley, Hawthorne said he would be willing to remind his colleagues that the freeway is currently 20% over capacity during rush hours--a fact they could readily obtain from Caltrans staff members. "I would only bring it up if the staff doesn't mention it," he said.

Hawthorne conceded that even providing information could be considered lobbying at times. "It is close and that's why I've sought legal counsel to see that I stay legal. . . . "

Asked if the FPPC restrictions because of his business deprives San Diego County of an advocate on the commission, Hawthorne said: "I don't believe I'm there for San Diego County. . . . I don't think the Governor appointed me because I was from San Diego County."

Hawthorne said his commission colleagues, who are from other parts of California, will not be "parochial" and they will take an active interest in San Diego projects, even if he can't.

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