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Auditor demands Caltrans answers; Agency threatened with subpoenas over failure to disclose bridge report

February 16, 2005 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Sean Holstege

The state auditor is deepening her probe into why state transportation officials withheld vital Bay Bridge documents and is threatening subpoenas for the first time.

In a letter sent Monday to state Transportation Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak, State Auditor Elaine Howle demanded an investigation into why an April 2004 Caltrans report was never turned over to her office.

It showed Caltrans knew the bridge repair program had shattered the budget by $1 billion.

"I first learned of this document's existence at the (Jan. 26 Senate Transportation) committee hearing. I am very disturbed by Caltrans' failure to provide the draft quarterly report to my staff," Howle wrote. "It was clearly relevant to our audit and should have been provided."

She went on to cite state law,Auditor demands bridge answers which requires "full and unfettered access to records" and says any person who fails to comply "is guilty of a misdemeanor."

One Capitol veteran said it was "as harshly worded a letter from the auditor as he had ever seen."

McPeak's spokesman, Patrick Dorinson, said the secretary had not seen the letter and added, "Our standing order to Caltrans is to provide all the information they had at the time to the auditor. At the time of the audit, the secretary was unaware the document even existed."

The April report was uncovered by the Oakland Tribune under the California Public Records Act. In a follow-up Jan. 31 public records request, the Tribune sought documents that would show who called for the report and who saw it.

McPeak testified before the committee that she had never seen the document, even though the cover page bears her name, and she discussed the spiraling costs of the bridge with Bay Area transportation leaders in February. The core findings of the April report were later shared with those Bay Area officials in June but never reported to the Legislature, as required by state law.

Caltrans invoked a two-week extension to the latest records request, noting the documents "are located in several offices ... and/or require consultation with another agency having substantial interest in the records."

Last week Caltrans Director Will Kempton offered the most direct apology yet for the agency's failure to disclose records, telling the Commonwealth Club of California: "I offer no excuse and no justification for reports not being turned in in a timely fashion."

Howle's Valentine's Day letter was copied to the governor's office and every member of the Senate Transportation Committee and the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which together heard 15 hours of hearings on the Bay Bridge fiasco last month. In those hearings, lawmakers said Caltrans gave them two weeks to solve a $3.2 billion problem because it sat on information contained in the secret April report.

Howle is demanding answers.

"In view of the failure of Caltrans," she wrote, "I ask that your agency investigate why my office was not provided a copy."

She demanded an answer in 30 days. Based on the outcome, Howle wrote, "I will consider whether my office should take further action," including whether to "subpoena records and individuals in any future audit work at Caltrans."

Contact Sean Holstege at [email protected].

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