By Carla Marinucci and Angela Hart, POLITICO
September 9, 2019
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group, has formally asked Attorney General Xavier Becerra and three California district attorneys to investigate Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, charging he has misused public funds involving “seemingly illegal and fraudulent payments from taxpayers for Lara’s second home.”
The organization's president, Jamie Court, and its litigation director, Jerry Flanagan, made the requests of Becerra, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey and Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert in a Friday letter.
The request comes after POLITICO this weekfound that Lara, whose primary residence is in Los Angeles, has been charging taxpayers for rent on a second residence in Sacramento — a $700-a-month studio apartment that he has maintained since his days as a Democratic assemblyman and senator.
POLITICO relied on public records requests to piece together his spending. Between the apartment, travel costs and other per diem expenses associated with his position, Lara has been reimbursed $14,160 in his first six months in office, according to the records.
Lara’s office said that the commissioner’s travels demand regular visits to Sacramento and that he cleared the billings with his legal department before filing them. They argue that the expenditure isadvantageous to state taxpayers compared with the $95-a-night reimbursement that statewide elected leaders who don't live in Sacramento are entitled to, before taxes.
But Consumer Watchdog in its letter argues Lara is using public funds for private benefit, which it is illegal. “Though Commissioner Lara appears to be claiming that use of his Sacramento residence is only necessary for approximately eight days of public business each month in Sacramento, by billing taxpayers for the entire cost of the apartment rental, Commissioner Lara is benefitting from the use of the residence over weekends and other personal visits to Sacramento throughout the rest of the month,’’ the letter says.
The organization claims that Lara’s reimbursement documents on file with the state “appear to fraudulently categorize his expenses’’ by reporting his Sacramento apartment reimbursements as “railroad fare.’’ Consumer Watchdog argues that those expenses are filed under penalty of perjury — and alleges that Lara’s entries were fraudulent and constitute “a crime.”
Lara’s office had no comment on the letter.
The state Attorney General’s office and Sacramento District Attorney’s office did not respond Friday afternoon to POLITICO requests for comment.