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Hawthorne Confirmed for 2nd Transportation Term

Times Staff Writer

The state Senate confirmed Thursday the appointment of J. Thomas Hawthorne to a second term on the California Transportation Commission, rejecting allegations that Hawthorne acted improperly by voting to approve freeway construction projects that might benefit his heavy-equipment business.

The Senate approved Hawthorne’s appointment on a 28-0 vote after three senators from San Diego County said the conflict-of-interest accusations against the Escondido businessman were without foundation. The Senate had until Feb. 1 to confirm Gov. George Deukmejian’s appointment of Hawthorne or the appointment would have been automatically rejected.

The controversy surrounding Hawthorne, the Transportation Commission’s chairman, stemmed from his ownership of Hawthorne Machinery Co. in Kearny Mesa, the exclusive dealer of Caterpillar heavy equipment in San Diego County. Because most freeway builders rent or buy Caterpillar graders and other machinery, the Fair Political Practices Commission said in 1985 that Hawthorne would be voting to give business to his company’s customers and thus himself every time he approved a San Diego highway project. The FPPC urged Hawthorne to abstain on those votes, and he agreed to do so.

‘Government by Ignorance’

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But, since then, according to a report prepared for the Senate Rules Committee, Hawthorne has voted for 52 San Diego projects worth a total of $164 million. The FPPC is investigating the matter.

Sen. Larry Stirling (R-San Diego) criticized the FPPC opinion on Hawthorne’s case, saying the ruling would tend to disqualify anyone who was “active in the industry or knowledgeable about the industry.”

“The policy implication is government by ignorance,” Stirling said. “If you don’t know anything about it, if you don’t have anything to do with it, then you are fully qualified to be in charge of the future of the people of California.”

Sen. Wadie Deddeh (D-Bonita) said it would be a “travesty of justice” to hold Hawthorne’s business background against him.

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“It is not his fault that he happened to have the equipment that a lot of contractors and builders would want to borrow or lease or buy from him,” Deddeh said.

The state Political Reform Act prohibits public officials from participating in decisions that will have a “material financial effect” on any person or company that was the source of $250 or more in income to the public official in the year preceding the decision.

Will Continue Voting

The law does not apply to income from retail sales if the retail customers of the public official’s business represent a “significant segment of the public” and the income received from the customer who benefits from the official’s decision is not distinguishable from income received from other retail customers.

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But the FPPC ruled that, in most cases, Hawthorne’s customers were not a significant segment of the public and that the income he received from the builders of highway projects he approved was distinguishable from income from his other customers.

Still, Hawthorne vowed Wednesday to continue voting on San Diego projects, except those that have a direct effect on his property or that give the county highway funding on top of the amount approved in the annual State Transportation Improvement Program.

“I’m going to be more attentive to minor details--some of the things I took as perfunctory-type votes,” he said. “Certainly the FPPC wants us to be as cautious as possible so we are not open to criticism.”

Hawthorne added that he will consider voting for extra funds for San Diego County if his vote is needed to break a tie on the commission, even if, by doing so, he could be fined by the FPPC for a conflict of interest.

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But Hawthorne did abstain on an item on Wednesday’s Transportation Commission agenda that routinely released previously approved money for San Diego County. He said he did so as a precaution because he had not yet been confirmed by the Senate. His absention involved a $269,000 grading project on California 67 north of Lakeside.


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