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Tax Board Member’s Travel Claims Investigated : State government: Records show William Bennett was repaid for food and lodging never bought. An internal audit is under way.

Compiled by Kenneth Williams

Over the last two years, State Board of Equalization member William Bennett has collected thousands of dollars in reimbursement for out-of-town meals and lodging that state records indicate he never purchased.

The records show that on numerous occasions Bennett sought reimbursement for overnight travel expenses when his gasoline credit card receipts and car telephone records indicate he was actually at or near his home in Kentfield in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In some instances, the records show that Bennett traveled out of town but, instead of staying overnight as claimed on his expense forms, he returned to his home area. In other instances, they show that he was reimbursed for meals and overnight lodging for trips that were never made.

Of the approximately $19,000 he collected in travel expenses during a two-year period, about $6,000 involves questionable expenses, a Times review indicates.

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Bennett, a veteran member of the tax policy board, has played an unofficial role as the board’s chief upholder of ethical standards for public officials. One of the few state officials who does not accept campaign contributions, Bennett has been outspoken in his criticism of others--particularly fellow board members Paul Carpenter and Conway Collis--who have accepted political donations and then voted in cases involving contributors.

After being questioned by The Times, the board’s executive secretary, Cindy Rambo, said she has assigned an internal auditor to investigate Bennett’s travel expenses. She said the matter will be turned over to the attorney general’s office for possible criminal action if the internal audit indicates there may be wrongdoing.

Bennett declined to comment on any of the specific instances where there appeared to be conflicts between his expense claims and other records, saying it would take him weeks--if not months--to reconstruct his movements on each trip.

“I don’t remember what I did last week, much less last year,” he said. “I’m not an auditor.”

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He acknowledged that in filling out his travel expense forms, he often relied on memory and may have mixed up dates.

While contending he has never knowingly violated regulations governing travel expenses incurred by constitutional officers of the state, he said he would seek to correct any mistakes.

“If any errors or omissions have slipped by in the review process of my claims and this is brought to my attention by proper authorities, I shall insist on the correction of these items,” he said.

Bennett said he did not want to dignify the accusations with further comment because he believes his political enemies are behind the disclosures.

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Indeed, Rambo said she was first notified of potential problems with Bennett’s travel statements by Joseph F. Micallef, a former Board of Equalization auditor who is opposing Bennett in the Democratic primary June 5. Micallef said his own review of Bennett’s travel records indicates that between $3,000 and $5,000 of the approximately $9,000 Bennett collects each year in travel expenses is questionable.

Micallef and Bennett, a lawyer who has been on the board for 19 years, are vying for a job that pays $95,052 a year for representing a 33-county district in Northern California on the five-member board.

Although the panel does not have a high public profile, the Board of Equalization has immense authority over the interpretation and administration of the state’s voluminous tax laws. It oversees the collection of all business taxes including sales and use taxes, decides appeals of state income tax issues and sets utility property tax values.

To facilitate board members’ coverage of the vast territory that most districts encompass, the state provides each with a late-model car, a gasoline credit card, a telephone credit card and a car telephone. Regulations forbid use of the automobile, credit cards or car telephone by anyone except the board member.

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For officials traveling out of town on business, the state also pays a flat per diem of $84 a day to cover meals and lodging. To collect the per diem, officials must be gone for a minimum 24-hour period.

The discrepancies in Bennett’s out-of-town travel claims were revealed when travel dates on his expense forms were compared with dates and times appearing on gasoline receipts and automobile telephone records.

For instance, in January, 1989, Bennett sought full reimbursement for three nights’ lodging for a trip to Torrance where the state board was meeting. He claimed he left for the meeting on Jan. 24 and returned on the evening of Jan. 27. While board minutes indicate he attended the meetings in the daytime, other records indicate he flew back to the Bay Area at night. Gasoline records show that his state car was filled up Jan. 25 in Larkspur, about three miles from his home. Telephone credit card records show a call being made from the airport area of San Francisco in the early morning of Jan. 25. Car telephone records show a call being made in the Bay Area in the late afternoon of Jan. 25 and the afternoon of Jan. 26. It is unclear whether the state paid for the airline travel.

A month later, Bennett reported traveling to Torrance again, claiming expenses for a seven-day period beginning Feb. 5 and ending Feb. 11. He reported six nights of lodging. Yet a gasoline credit card is signed with his name in San Francisco on Feb. 9. Car telephone records show calls being made in the Bay Area on Sunday, Feb. 5, in the afternoon; on Feb. 6 in the morning and afternoon, and on Feb. 7 in the early morning. Bennett’s telephone credit card shows calls being made from the South San Francisco airport area on Feb. 7 in the morning; on Feb. 8 in the morning and afternoon, and on Feb. 9 in the afternoon. On Feb. 10, they show calls being made in San Francisco in the late morning and midafternoon. No board meetings were held on the 5th, 6th, 10th or 11th.

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