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D.A. used SUV in violation of grant

A gleaming new 2005 Ford Expedition was purchased by Merced County last year with money from a state grant. It came with explicit directions: The $27,000 SUV must be used only by a special rural crimes deputy in the District Attorney's Office.Instead, District Attorney Gordon Spencer took the Expedition for his own use and gave the deputy a used Crown Victoria, records and interviews reveal.

From the time the Expedition was purchased in April 2005 until the Sun-Star started asking questions about the use of the SUV in March, Spencer drove the vehicle in violation of the conditions of the grant.

The D.A.'s contract breach may jeopardize future funding from the grant, which is used to fight crime in rural parts of the county.

Spencer's use of the SUV also apparently violates the county's vehicle policy for top-level managers. He already receives a $700-a-month allowance meant to reimburse him for using his personal car for business reasons. The county's rules allow managers to either use a county-owned vehicle or receive a car allowance -- but not both.

In the past year, Spencer had $8,400 added to his salary to pay for a personal vehicle while he was driving the county-owned Expedition.

Public records show that more than 11,000 miles were put on the Expedition during that time. They also show that Spencer was designated as its primary driver and that he used a county-owned gas station to fill its tank at least 18 times.

It's unclear whether Spencer used the car for business or personal reasons. He didn't return calls seeking comment for this story.

Spencer sent a brief statement that didn't directly answer questions about the grant contract violation. It said he was "satisfied that we have done our best to comply with grant requirements while protecting the safety of Merced County residents."

In late 2004, Spencer signed a document that was part of the grant application that said in part, "all funds received pursuant to this agreement will be spent exclusively on the purposes specified."

The application made it clear the car would be used by Deputy District Attorney Larry Morse. But Morse said he's never driven the car.

An administrator with the state Office of Emergency Services, which awarded the grant, said if a county department violates the conditions of its grant, it may lose out on current and future grant funds or face other disciplinary action.

Merced County Supervisor Jerry O'Banion said he believes Spencer's use of the Expedition, which is a county-owned car, violates the county's car policy.

"I think that if you get a reimbursement from the county for travel, you shouldn't be getting any other kind of compensation," O'Banion said. "In other words, don't charge me and the state at the same time."

O'Banion and Supervisor Deidre Kelsey were the only members of the Board of Supervisors who indicated they were interested in looking into the misuse of the SUV and violation of the grant's conditions, though neither called for immediate action.

The other three supervisors said they didn't have enough information to comment or said they didn't think it was too serious of a violation.

"Maybe a little more latitude needs to be given in certain situations," Supervisor Mike Nelson said when asked whether he thought Spencer should be using county equipment and receiving reimbursements at the same time.

The Sun-Star reported in February that Spencer had been using a county cell phone while receiving a $150-a-month phone allowance, a violation of county policy. He stopped using the county phone shortly after county auditor Stephen Jones started asking him questions about the phone.

The county has taken no disciplinary action against Spencer for his misuse of the phone and has not asked him to pay back the reimbursements.

How Spencer got his SUV

Since 1999, the District Attorney's Office has received a grant from OES to participate in the Central Valley Rural Crime Prevention Program.

Most of the money from the $284,000 annual grant is used to pay the salaries for three full-time county employees to investigate, arrest and prosecute people who commit agricultural crimes, such as participating in cockfights or stealing calves.

The team includes two Sheriff's deputies -- one for the west side of the county and the other for the east side.

It also includes a deputy district attorney. For the past year, Morse has filled that position.

Morse is running unopposed this June for district attorney. Spencer is retiring this year.

Before early 2005, Morse was driving an old Chevrolet Blazer. In the 2004 grant application, the District Attorney's Office asked OES if it could use grant funds to replace the worn-out vehicle.

The application said in part, "Due to the large service area our investigators patrol, it has put a lot of wear and tear on all 3 vehicles purchased (since) the inception of this grant. Replacement of the Blazer is requested to acquire a full size vehicle."

John Isaacson, who heads the Crime Suppression Section at OES, said his agency has tough standards for approving the purchase of new vehicles. He called the justification for the new SUV "pretty slim."

But Isaacson was not in charge of approving grants in 2004. He said the Expedition was likely approved because the Blazer, which it was replacing, had already been OK'd in 2000.

In April 2005, the District Attorney's Office purchased the Expedition from Razzari Ford/Mazda in Merced for $26,898, a receipt for the SUV shows.

A box in the receipt read, "Primary Use For Which Purchased." It had two check-boxes below. One read, "business or commercial" and was left unmarked, another read, "personal, family or household" and was marked.

Isaacson said that equipment purchased with his agency's grant funds can only be used by employees assigned to the rural crime team. Morse, the two Sheriff's deputies and an account technician are the only people assigned to the team.

Morse -- who doesn't get a car allowance -- said that instead of the Expedition, he was assigned a used Ford Crown Victoria last year.

Records at the county's service station, where county workers fill up their vehicles with gas, show Spencer has been the primary driver of the Expedition.

They show he's personally put gas in the SUV at least 18 of the 23 times it has been filled up. Records also show Spencer has brought the car in for service twice.

A notation on a document known as the Expedition's "birth certificate" says, "SPENCERS D/A."

Lou Corgero, a supervisor at the service station, said that when the Expedition was purchased, the District Attorney's Office told him that Spencer would be its primary driver.

"It was ordered for him," he said.

SUV kept at home

Jones, the county auditor, said he heard concerns that Spencer was violating the county's car policy a few months ago. He discovered that Spencer had been keeping the car at his house, though he started parking it outside his office at least a few weeks ago.

Jones said Spencer told him that he kept the car at his house for its protection. Spencer also said he used the car only to drive out of the county on business trips, Jones said.

The county allows managers who receive a car allowance to use a county vehicle for out-of-county business trips. But Jones said it was questionable for Spencer to keep the car at his house.

"Parking at your house to protect the car is, in my opinion, not a very good idea," he said.

Kelsey, the supervisor, agreed.

"If you want to use a county car to go out of the county, you can do that, but you can't take it home with you unless there's extenuating circumstances," she said.

A Ford Expedition has been parked on 20th Street outside the District Attorney's Office the past few weeks. Its vehicle identification number matches the VIN for the Expedition purchased by the county with the rural crime grant.

Jones said he didn't know that Spencer had violated the conditions of the grant.

He said questions about whether Spencer should have kept the Expedition at his house don't raise a clear enough issue to bring before the Board of Supervisors.

"It's not a battle I can win," he said.

Some officials don't mind

Philip Wile, a contract law professor at Sacramento-based McGeorge Law School, said Spencer's actions will probably have repercussions.

"It does seem to me to be a breach of the grant agreement that would jeopardize the grant, at a minimum," he said.

Wile said he believes the county is entitled to some form of reimbursement from Spencer.

"It seems there would be some disciplinary proceeding initiated by the county," he said.

But a few supervisors aren't too concerned about the violations.

Nelson, the chairman of the board, said he hopes the county's policy on reimbursements will be reviewed soon so that there can be "no double-dipping."

"It goes back to the individual," he said. "People should know what the rules are and follow them."

But he said any review of the county policy wouldn't be prompted by questions about Spencer's actions.

"It's just a periodic review," Nelson said.

Nelson later sent a statement in response to the concerns raised about Spencer's actions. It said in part: "Currently all the facts are not in, therefore, I have no position on this matter. Once all the information is available, however, and if it indicates changes need to be made to policy, then I would support and or encourage such change."

Supervisor O'Banion said he's going to request a review of the county's policies in the next couple of months because he's concerned about Spencer's use of county equipment -- including his former use of a county phone -- while receiving reimbursements.

O'Banion said it's up to the county administration and Human Resources Department to deal with Spencer's actions.

Human Resources Director Robert Morris said he's taken no action to address the concerns.

Kelsey said she's most concerned about Spencer's violation of the conditions of the rural crime grant.

"There is an expectation that when someone uses a grant, it should be used appropriately," she said. "Maybe we should look at that."

But Kelsey wouldn't say when she would address the misuse of the grant.

She added, "I hope Gordon can shed some light on this and that he does have some legitimate reason."

Supervisor John Pedrozo said he didn't know enough about county policies to comment.

"I'm 14 months into the job and don't know all the ins and outs of what department heads do," he said. " ... I don't know enough about it. If you ask me in five years, then I can comment more in depth."

Supervisor Kathleen Crookham said she's known for the past few months that Spencer has been using a county vehicle while receiving a car allowance at the same time, but she said she doesn't think it's a serious violation.

"It's just unfortunate," she said. "It takes so much time and effort to develop trust. Just one tiny thing can ruin that. I don't think it needs to be addressed."

Crookham said she didn't have enough information to comment on the grant violation.

Spencer, who has successfully run for district attorney four times unopposed, has said that he will not run for re-election this year.

He's the subject of an investigation by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is looking into whether he served alcohol to an underage man at a Merced Golf and Country Club party in December.

Gregory Gomez, a 20-year-old South Merced resident, walked home from the party where Spencer was a volunteer bartender. Gomez was struck and killed by a car on Bellevue Road. Police said his blood alcohol level was 0.245.

Spencer was investigated late last year by the state Attorney General's Office, which found that he impersonated a government official when he tried to settle a dispute his son had with a cabinet company by giving the impression he was an investigator.

The attorney general concluded that Spencer did not commit a crime and ordered him to take an eight-hour ethics course.

Spencer has a spotless disciplinary record with the California State Bar Association.

Investigation also shows Spencer used county vehicle, got allowance

County policy on car use:

"All employees in a classification designated as "A" level Management shall receive a $700 a month car allowance, unless assigned a County car. "A" level Managers receiving a car allowance may elect to drive a County car or be reimbursed for mileage when traveling out of the County."