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California

Lobster, wine, plane tickets: Fair workers grossly misused taxpayer money, audit shows

A California fair ride.
Scene from the 2019 Orange County Fair.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

A state audit has found that California fair workers mismanaged hundreds of thousands of dollars in state resources and taxpayer money, often for personal expenses such as airfare, fine wine, and a lobster dinner.

The report found that among California’s 54 district agricultural associations — which oversee local fairs, expos and exhibitions — one group violated government law, often with the approval of its CEO and maintenance supervisor.

The audit faults that district association’s governor-appointed, nine-member board of directors for neglecting to ensure that the unnamed association followed state requirements. It also blames the California Department of Food and Agriculture for failing to oversee the smaller group.

After a whistleblower alerted the state auditor’s office to possible wrongdoing, an investigation into the district association’s spending from 2016 to 2018 was launched.

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The findings show a gross mismanagement of state funds, including:

  • $132,584 of credit card purchases without supporting receipts
  • $130,396 of individual credit card purchases not previously approved
  • $30,048 for illegal out-of-state travel expenses
  • $125 for a lobster meal, exceeding the $23 maximum allowable reimbursement for dinner
An itemized receipt obtained from vendors of alcohol purchases.
Alcohol purchases are highlighted in an itemized receipt obtained from vendors.
(California State Auditor Report)

“In addition to the financial, performance, and high risk audits that my office performs, we administer the statutory provisions of the California Whistleblower Protection Act. We receive, review, and investigate allegations of state employees committing improper governmental activities,” State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in the report.

The report does not identify the specific fair district or its workers to protect the identity of the whistleblower.

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The group cited in the audit was placed on a watch list in 2013 for fiscally challenged district agricultural associations. But the state Food and Agriculture Department had not audited the branch since then. The state agency said it lost $32 million in funding between 2011 and 2015 for its Fairs and Expositions branch and was forced to eliminate 30 positions, including its auditor positions.

According to the report, several employees misused state time, vehicles and materials to conduct construction-related jobs on the side. In one instance, an employee brought several propane tanks from home and filled them at the fairgrounds. Other employees regularly stored alcohol and drank on fairground property, and several workers regularly violated state law and Department of Food and Agriculture policies by failing to keep accurate time records.

The state audit office made several recommendations to the Department of Food and Agriculture and the individual fair association, including recouping funds, and disciplinary action against the CEO, maintenance supervisors and all employees who engaged in the identified activities.


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