SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) --- A coalition of environmental justice and other advocacy groups want the California Legislature to stop giving the California District Attorneys Association money after an outside audit found the organization misused nearly $3 million in public money earmarked for environmental enforcement efforts and fighting wage theft and unsafe working conditions.
The coalition, which includes the Sierra Club California, Clean Water Action, Coalition for Clean Air and seven other groups, said the CDAA must immediately repay every penny it siphoned off for political lobbying and other general activities.
"At a time when public trust in law enforcement has been so undermined, what we seem to have here is yet one more example of a law enforcement organization flagrantly ignoring both the will of this Legislature and the best interest of our most vulnerable communities by using resources to help protect our neighbors and families from environmental harm to instead champion policies that support mass incarceration and stand in the way of criminal justice reform. And it needs to stop,” said Ken Spence, a policy adviser with NextGen California, one of the groups that sent a letter to the California Assembly leadership.
Last year, the CDAA hired the San Francisco accounting firm Hemming Morse to audit its management of funds related to six worker safety programs.
The auditor found the CDAA had been treating those funds as an unrestricted grab bag since 2004, just two years after the Legislature passed the Environmental Enforcement and Training Act. The act directed the CDAA to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to go after polluters and environmental scofflaws.
The CDAA also took $1.1 million from funds that were supposed to be used to prosecute workplace safety violators. In all, auditors found the six funds were short a total $2.9 million as of June 2020.
On Monday, the California Assembly’s budget subcommittee on public safety met to discuss how to deal with the fallout.
CDAA did not participate in the hearing because it is currently under investigation by the California attorney general, though it said it will put aside 10% of any leftover funds at the end of the year to repay the programs.
Testifying before the committee on Monday, Leadership Counsel attorney Ashley Werner gave a striking example of how the misused money could have been put to good use in battling the environmental disruption caused by a 50-year old rendering plant in West Fresno, one of the most pollution-burdened areas in California.
Located near Edison High School and a community park, the Darling Ingredients meat-rendering plant processes 885,000 pounds of meat per day, Werner said.
“Odors from its operations saturate the air in residents’ yards and open spaces, invade homes through open windows and HVAC systems, and cause residents to experience nausea, headaches and stress,” she said. Trucks from the plants also leak meat juices and spill animal carcasses onto roadways.“Despite the plant’s size and severe impacts on the local community, the facility has operated for 50 years without ever obtaining a land use permit, and without ever undergoing an environmental review,” Werner said.
The plant will shut down in 2023, after 15 years of fighting with Concerned Citizens of West Fresno over these violations.
Leadership Counsel is a nonprofit that works with disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin and Coachella valleys. Werner said enforcement by prosecutors “could have saved these residents countless hours, freed up nonprofit legal counsel at Leadership Counsel and helped secure justice years earlier.”
Policy analyst Anita Lee with the Legislative Analyst's Office told the committee it’s hard to say how long it will take the CDAA to repay the money it took. It could require the CDAA to raise membership dues or “raise revenue in other ways." She estimated that the CDAA could afford to contribute about $100,000 of unencumbered funds toward annual payments; a process that could take at least 30 years.
Assembly member Reginald Jones Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, noted some of the misspent money could have gone to investigating and prosecuting companies that put their employees in danger by refusing to abide by Covid-19 safety protocols.
“People died because of employers who did not even consider that the working conditions that individuals were in could not only cause harm but could cause death,” he said. “We need the DAs to do their jobs.”
Assembly member Mark Stone, D-Santa Cruz, said he was troubled by the CDAA’s use of taxpayer dollars for political advocacy --- and its seemingly cavalier response to the audit.
“We have a private organization that is getting public moneys but has conflicting obligations. This is pretty indicative of some significant cultural problems within the CDAA where they blithely take their responsibilities to the public moneys coming in, and borrow from those accounts to be used for other activities that they themselves choose to participate in. And we know this a political organization that engages in advocacy for specific positions,” he said.
Stone said he believed the CDAA was doing the “minimum they could get away with” to rectify a “classic misappropriation of funds.”
“The fact that they don't seem interested in coming up with a serious way of remedying it and just paying it off as they can shows to me a lack of seriousness,” he said, adding it is important to draw a distinction between the local district attorneys and the CDAA. “As far as I know the local offices that have not been implicated,” he said.
The lawmakers will likely address the crisis in confidence by funding local district attorney’s offices or nonprofit organizations directly, rather than funneling money for environmental enforcement through the CDAA “until they come up with a real plan to pay this money back and pay it back now,” Stone said.Follow @MariaDinzeo
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.