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Transportation Chief Defends Using CHP as Chauffeurs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under heavy grilling at a Senate confirmation hearing, Gov. Pete Wilson’s new secretary of business, transportation and housing acknowledged Wednesday that he is regularly chauffeured by California Highway Patrol officers but defended the practice as necessary to his job.

On his first day of questioning by the Senate Rules Committee, Carl Covitz, a real estate developer and former official with the scandal-plagued Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Reagan Administration, was forced to explain his use of the law enforcement vehicles and a Department of Transportation helicopter.

The committee is expected to complete its examination of Covitz and vote today on a recommendation to the full Senate. Failure to win a majority vote from the Democratic-dominated panel is usually a sign that the nomination is in trouble.

Covitz has held the job since January; the Senate has until next January to confirm him.

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Wednesday’s questioning had been expected to center on Covitz’s tenure as undersecretary of HUD, but senators quickly passed over that issue to allow Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) to focus on transportation issues. Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) said there is no evidence to link Covitz to the HUD scandals, which involve the misuse of federal housing funds.

Kopp said California Highway Patrol records show that on more than 40 occasions in six months, Covitz had ordered officer-driven Highway Patrol cars for his use, including commutes between his downtown Los Angeles office and his home. He said other records also indicated that the secretary used a Department of Transportation helicopter to view a parade staged for soldiers returning from the Persian Gulf War.

Covitz, whose responsibilities include the California Highway Patrol, said his use of CHP transportation services followed past practice and was restricted to official business.

While acknowledging that he had flown in the helicopter, he said he was there not to view the parade but to observe how his departments were handling congestion and traffic problems. When pressed by Kopp, he conceded that his wife, his son and a friend of his son’s had been along on the ride.

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“I can tell you, senator, you can’t see much of a parade from the air,” he said.

Kopp accused Covitz of virtually ignoring his transportation responsibilities, charging that he had failed to come up with a strategy to finance an expensive seismic retrofitting program for highway bridges and that he had not complied with a legislative mandate to reorganize the Department of Transportation.

Covitz said most of his efforts had been concentrated on a search for a new transportation director, who was finally appointed last month.


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