Central Valley

Auditor says she's 'taking gloves off'

If past performance is any indication, agencies in California could end up misspending as much as $7 billion in federal stimulus money.

"That takes my breath away," said Laura Chick, the state's first inspector general, whose job is to keep that from happening.

Gov. Schwarzenegger created her post to keep an eye on the estimated $50 billion flowing to California to help dig out from the recession. He chose Chick, who made a name for herself as a corruption-fighting Los Angeles city controller.

She started in late April and spent a few weeks getting the lay of the land but said she is growing restless in pursuit of fraud and sloppiness.

"I'm taking the gloves off," Chick, 65, told Bee editors during a Tuesday visit to Modesto. "I'll come down very hard, very early and very publicly because that will have a deterring effect. I'm trolling; I want to find some things out there."

Local, state and federal prosecutors assure Chick that whenever government offers money, some of it winds up where it shouldn't — 7 percent to 14 percent. Hurricane Katrina funding is a case in point, she said.

"What the recovery act is all about is telling states, 'Here is more money than you've ever had before,' coming faster than ever before at a time when government has fewer resources than ever before," Chick said.

Chick made headlines with stinging reports on unprocessed police rape kits, bottled water purchases at Los Angeles City Hall and lax gas card policies. She left, just shy of being termed out, to take the new inspector general job, where her yearly salary is $175,000.

Red flags for her include "weak internal controls" at state agencies and the U.S. Department of Labor. That agency in May gave Stanislaus County $8.8 million to train people for nonexistent jobs, grumbled county supervisors who took the money despite their reservations.

Chick also wonders about the lack of outcry when California's hundreds of internal auditors produce reports. She learned the value of news conferences in Los Angeles, she said, and will make good use of media in Sacramento.

"My critics accused me of being a media hound," Chick said. "I plead guilty, because if I can't get the public to care, nothing will change."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.