LOS ANGELES (CBS) — While you spend nearly $5 a gallon at the pump on your own car, a CBS2 News investigation has uncovered some public employees taking a free ride at your expense.
For the past four months our undercover cameras have focused on some of the thousands of taxpayer-funded cars that we that found on the streets.
You have probably seen them yourself with a city, county or state seal, and wondered whether they were on official business or something else — or if they are even necessary?
In one instance we caught a guy getting a ride to work in a city car and you are paying for it. In another women go to lunch with their car and gas paid for by taxpayers.
The City of Los Angles has nearly 2,100 passenger vehicles. They cost more than $51 million with an additional $3.5 million just to operate and maintain last year.
Some cars are permanently assigned to city council members and various city departments. Others are checked out for daily use through the city motor-pool, where employees with permission can temporarily use a car to conduct city business.
Many of the cars are white hybrids like one that we found on the streets. The only problems were that the man driving it way not a city employee and he was not on city business.
Behind the wheel was Raul Gonzalez and the passenger was his wife Hilda Garcia.
She works in the mayor’s office as a program manager in the gang reduction unit. In March we followed them the 12 miles from their home in Highland Park to Gonzalez’s job at a school in the Wilshire District, where he got out and went to work — and you paid for it.
In fact last year the city spent $660,000 of your money on gas for its passenger cars.
Garcia used some of that gas on another day when we caught her dropping her husband off at work. This time she was driving, but again using a city car.
According to the L.A. City Municipal Code, it is unlawful to operate these vehicles for any purpose other than for official business and the policy states that only city employees are authorized to drive city owned vehicles.
But when I spoke with Garcia, she couldn’t recall the incident.
David Goldstein: “He drove the car and you were in the passenger seat and he drove to the school.”
Hilda Garcia: “I don’t remember that. I don’t remember that.”
David Goldstein: “We have it on videotape. Was that for city business?
Hilda Garcia: “Well I would love to see the videotape.”
The footage can be viewed in the adjoining video. There is no denying it, but she did again…
“I would never let anybody drive the city vehicle, that’s not authorized,” Garcia said.
…And again. “I’ve never had anyone drive the city car other than myself.”
According to the motor pool logs we obtained, Garcia uses the city car over and over. She checked one out 85 times last year, sometimes for days at a time for a total of 181 days. This year we videotaped the car parked outside her house overnight and on weekends.
But logs show that Garcia is not the only city employee who uses a pool vehicle like a personal rent a car. Dozens checked out cars for days, weeks or months, even though policy states that “vehicles checked out from the motor pool must be returned on the same day.”
Even then there could be abuses. We followed city employees in a motor pool car roughly 15 miles from Downtown L.A. to Rosemead. They went to a restaurant where they sat and had lunch.
“The taxpayers are paying for your transportation for a personal lunch. Is that right?” I asked.
They didn’t have anything to say.
But they were not the only city employees we found using a city car to go to lunch.
City Controller Wendy Gruel has audited vehicle usage. Her report last year found inadequate oversight.
In her report Gruel recommended eliminating 400 vehicles and using mileage reimbursements similar to the private sector to conservatively save two million dollars a year.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he tried to cut some of the city fleet a few years ago but the council resisted. However, he defends the cars saying sometimes they might be cheaper than reimbursing employees for mileage.
“I agree these cars need to be used for an official purpose, they can’t be misused,” Villaraigosa said.
After we showed city officials what we uncovered, they said they would tighten safeguards to make sure city cars and gas are used for city business. Not personal use.