Reporting Laura Cole
EL DORADO COUNTY (CBS13) – Cal Fire says it’s a highly successful program that helps prevent forest fires. But we’ve uncovered documents showing tens of thousands of dollars have gone into the pocket of just one politician. And, yes, you’re paying for it.
El Dorado County Supervisor Ray Nutting’s family owns 660 acres of timberland outside of Placerville.
Over the last several years he’s collected about $70,000 of taxpayer money for work he’s done clearing brush and trimming trees on his own land. About half the money came from Proposition 40, a 2002 bond measure California voters passed for clean water and air.
“Is it fair? Prop. 40 is a tool that’s used for property owners to reduce their fuel loads,” Nutting said.
Cal Fire oversees the program and defends it as a proactive tool in the fight against wildfires.
“This program has helped us tremendously,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. “It’s been a very small price to help us in preventing some of the state’s largest wildfires from really becoming even more destructive and causing more damage for our state’s watershed.”
But $70,000 to maintain your own land?
“It is extremely time consuming it is extremely expensive and it takes a lot of human effort to get that accomplished,” said Nutting.
Jon Coupal with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association opposed the proposition from the beginning, concerned about waste of public money.
“A person’s private property is their responsibility, not the taxpayers’ responsibility.”
El Dorado County auditor Joe Harn examined the bills Nutting submitted for his yard work, and questions some of the claims.
“It’s bogus, you don’t invoice yourself. It makes no sense,” Harn said. “The invoice just appears to be a vehicle to claim taxpayers money”
Nutting’s reimbursements are also drawing the attention of the district attorney’s office. They’re examining potential violations of fraud, perjury, and conflict of interest statutes on the claim forms he submitted to the state.
But Nutting denies any wrongdoing. And says he’ll continue collecting taxpayer dollars from a proposition he admits he didn’t even vote for.
“Just because I voted for it or against it, it is a tool to get the land transferred from a catastrophic event into a forest that has fire protection and give us those public benefits,” Nutting said.
During the course of the program the state has awarded 296 similar grants to other landowners, although the free cash is scheduled to run out next year. And because this is bond money, the $2.5 billion will actually cost taxpayers closer to $5 billion by the time its paid off.
During the course of our investigation, we reviewed more than 500 pages of documents, including Nutting’s economic-interest statements, which never disclosed these payments. But a week after we asked him about this, he filed an amended statement disclosing the income to the state.