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Caltrans is paying for top official’s San Diego-to-Sacramento flights, and her apartment

Caltrans has been paying for its director to commute to Sacramento from her home in San Diego since she was appointed early last year, according to travel records.

The state has been reimbursing Director Laurie Berman, who announced she is stepping down this month, for regular flights between the cities and paying most of her rent at a Sacramento duplex, according to travel expense claims and reimbursements The Sacramento Bee obtained under the Public Records Act.

The records show a year’s worth of back-and-forth flights and her rent cost the state about $21,000. She spent thousands more on rental cars, Lyft rides and meals related to the travel.

Although allowed under the law, spending taxpayer money on long commutes and mid-week housing for managers is an unusual accommodation, especially for a high-ranking official who needs to be in Sacramento to interact with lawmakers, contractors, the governor’s office and fellow top-level managers who live there.

Last month, the California State Auditor rebuked Caltrans for paying for another San Diego-to-Sacramento commute for a mid-level manager who hadn’t had the arrangement properly approved. The auditor’s report called the lower-level manager’s travel “wasteful” and a violation of state law, recommending the department attempt to recover money spent on her travel.

Caltrans officials said in Berman’s case, the reimbursements were allowed under special arrangements made by the administration of former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown appointed Berman, who was director of the Caltrans District 11 office in San Diego from 2009 to 2017, to oversee the state’s second-largest department in February 2018.

On March 16, she signed a year-long lease for the Sacramento duplex starting April 1. The state paid $1,130 of the apartment’s $1,330 monthly rent while continuing to pay for her San Diego travel under a long-term assignment agreement, which state departments typically use when qualified personnel are unavailable locally for needed work that will take 31 days or more.

By March 2019, the state had paid for about $9,000 worth of flights between the two cities and $12,400 toward Berman’s Sacramento rent, plus thousands more for vehicles and food, according to the Bee’s analysis of the travel records. The total doesn’t include flights from San Diego to the Bay Area that she might have avoided had she moved to Sacramento or other flights she took elsewhere.

Just before Berman was appointed director, she was the department’s chief deputy director. When she became director, former District 12 director Ryan Chamberlain, of Santa Ana, became chief deputy director. As chief deputy director headquartered in Santa Ana, he billed the state for travel to and from the capital.

Travel records show he often flew back and forth multiple times per week, billing the state for flights, hotels, car rentals, Lyft rides and meals. His flights between Santa Ana and Sacramento cost taxpayers about $20,000 from March 2018 through March 2019, and his Sacramento car rentals for that time cost about $3,000.

His travel expense claims sometimes were signed by Berman and sometimes by other supervisors.

“That’s a gross abuse of taxpayer resources,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association. “If you accept the job and it requires you being in Sacramento, then you’ve got to move. And if you don’t, you can commute, (but) you’ve got to do it on your own dime.”

Caltrans officials declined interview requests. Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said in emailed statements that the reimbursements are permissible under state law.

“These travel expenses are in accordance with the state’s travel policy and part of both Ms. Berman’s and Mr. Chamberlain’s duties,” Rocco said in the email. “With 50,000 highway lane miles as well as rail services, Caltrans projects touch every corner of the state and benefit all Californians. As Caltrans Director and Chief Deputy Director, Ms. Berman and Mr. Chamberlain oversee one of the largest transportation departments in the country and it is their responsibility to ensure the state’s position is well understood in regional and national discussions on transportation policy.”

Top state officials regularly move to Sacramento after they are promoted.

Thom Porter, who was appointed Cal Fire chief in January, moved to Sacramento from the San Diego area after his 2018 promotion to chief of strategic planning. Warren Stanley, whom Jerry Brown appointed California Highway Patrol commissioner in 2018, moved to Sacramento from Southern California in 2010 after a promotion to assistant commissioner.

California state government’s rules for reimbursing travel are based on where employees are headquartered. The government pays for transportation, food and lodging when employees travel more than 50 miles from their designated headquarters.

Under state law, an employee’s headquarters “shall be established by the appointing power” — Brown, in Berman’s case — “for each state officer and employee, and shall be defined as the place where the officer or employee spends the largest portion of his/her regular workdays or working time.”

Alternatively, headquarters may be defined as “the place to which he/she returns upon completion of special assignments, or as the Department may define in special situations,” according to the law.

Many of the top Caltrans officials Berman oversees are based in Sacramento, the department’s highest-paid office. The department’s Sacramento officials interact with lawmakers in the Capitol.

Berman stayed headquartered in San Diego, but her long-term assignment agreement, signed by the department’s chief financial officer, qualified her travel and the apartment for reimbursement. Long-term assignment agreements like Berman’s are rare, Rocco said in the email. About 160 of the department’s 19,000 employees have them, he said.

Berman, who has announced she’ll resign June 29, started at Caltrans as a bridge inspector in 1983 and worked her way up. Many of her responsibilities lie in Sacramento. The department is divided into 12 districts across the state, with its headquarters in the capital.

In the year of travel reviewed by The Bee, Berman often flew to Sacramento on a Sunday or Monday and returned to San Diego on a Thursday or Friday, although sometimes she traveled elsewhere after a day or two in Sacramento. In 2018 she was promoting Senate Bill 1, the $54 billion infrastructure spending package that survived a referendum last fall.

She sometimes flew to or from Los Angeles or Oakland for work events instead of San Diego or Sacramento, and then drove or took a train to those cities, making it difficult to identify with certainty where she spent the majority of her time.

Berman’s travel expense reports were approved by Caltrans’ chief of staff. Her 2018 salary was $195,000.

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State Auditor Elaine Howle focused on the headquarters issue in her report on the mid-level Caltrans manager.

The mid-level manager, whom the report doesn’t name, lived in San Diego and her designated headquarters was Sacramento. Since she spent the majority of her work days in Sacramento, her headquarters should have been there, which would have made her travel ineligible for reimbursement, according to the report.

State law defines as “improper” any governmental activity that is “economically wasteful.” Howle recommended Caltrans take serious action against the unnamed manager, including attempting to recover $42,000 in travel reimbursements from her. The manager retired from state service in March 2018, according to the report.

The audit report also recommended the department work with the State Controller’s Office to determine if the reimbursements should have been reported as taxable fringe benefits, and it recommended Caltrans update its training on travel reimbursements and strengthen enforcement.

Howle’s report, published May 7, gave Caltrans 30 to 90 days to respond to the recommendations.

Caltrans accepted the auditor’s recommendations, pledging to provide an update on the department’s progress within 60 days, according to the report. The department plans to try to recover the money from the former mid-level manager, Rocco said.

Rocco said Berman’s resignation was unrelated to the audit.

“Ms. Berman traveled during her time as director in accordance to the state’s travel policy ... It should be noted that all travel reimbursement claims are thoroughly reviewed, including the claims made by the director and chief deputy director,” he said in the email.

The Bee requested Berman and Chamberlain’s travel records May 3 and received them June 17.

Berman, 59, announced in a May 23 email that she would resign, despite having signed an extension of her long-term assignment agreement March 3.

Chamberlain has returned to his previous position as the director of District 12 for personal reasons, Rocco said.

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.