California's fire chief last week called his department's off-books fund "an invaluable tool" and said he "will not apologize for using it to improve our cost recovery efforts" in an internal memo obtained by The Bee.
Since 2005, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire, has paid the nonprofit California District Attorneys Association to house a special fund for training seminars and high-tech investigatory equipment. The fund collected $3.6 million overall and is being dissolved this month at the nonprofit's request.
While the fund has drawn legislative criticism and prompted a Department of Finance audit, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott vigorously defended the Wildland Fire Investigation, Training and Equipment Fund in a "monthly message" he sent last week to his employees. He said "recent incomplete and sensationalized media coverage" had "needlessly detracted from our successes and wasted valuable staff time and resources that would have been much better spent directly serving the public."
"The fund has been an invaluable tool in ensuring that the investigators, case managers and staff who participate in the cost recovery process receive the training and equipment necessary to effectively perform their jobs," Pimlott wrote. "We have never attempted to hide the existence of the fund and I will not apologize for using it to improve our cost recovery efforts."
Later, he added that he could not share specific information because of ongoing litigation, a reference to a bitter court dispute between Cal Fire and several defendants that include the state's largest landowner, Sierra Pacific Industries. "Over time, the truth will prevail, the motives of those attacking the fund and the Program will be exposed, and I will be able to speak more freely," he wrote.
A 2009 internal Cal Fire draft audit found the department was required to obtain Finance permission to house funds in a nonprofit outside state bank accounts, prompting a Cal Fire attorney to warn that informing Finance could result in department budget cuts. The finding was removed from a final version of the audit.
Pimlott, who took the helm in 2010, said in an interview that he learned only last month that the Department of Finance never approved the fund after a Los Angeles Times reporter questioned its propriety. He said he immediately informed Finance, which has since launched an inquiry.
Over the last decade, Cal Fire has more aggressively pursued businesses and individuals that it believes responsible for negligently sparking wildfires. That effort included establishing the special fund in 2005 and launching a dedicated unit of investigators, attorneys and forensic accountants in 2008, as The Bee explained Sunday.
PHOTO CREDIT: Flames rage in the hills of Ventura County in October 2003. Ignited by an accidental spark, the Piru fire cost a concrete business more than $2 million in compensation. Reed Saxon / Associated Press file, 2003.