High cost of bodyguards for state officials

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Costs at the California Highway Patrol's Protective Services Division have tripled up to more than $43 million last fiscal year. Much of that money goes to bodyguards for our celebrity governor. But now taxpayer advocates are questioning why five other state officials, with much lower profiles, are also getting the movie star treatment.

When California Superintendent of Public Education Jack O'Connell delivered the keynote address at a state PTA meeting in San Jose earlier this year, his plainclothes bodyguard from the CHP was there watching from the sidelines.

Dan Noyes: "When you make those visits, do you really feel as though you need a bodyguard?"

O'Connell: "Again, at times, these are visits that are announced ahead of time. We have made some very difficult decisions here in this building under my signature."

After, his bodyguard took the lead as they left through a loading dock, walked to an unmarked CHP car and drove off. O'Connell had a flight to catch at San Francisco International Airport.

O'Connell: "It really does afford me an opportunity you know, to work in the car, be efficient, be safe and, you know, I'm grateful for the help and the assistance.

Noyes: "So is it more of a convenience as opposed to a real concern for your safety?"

O'Connell: "It's really a combination."

"I think it's a real problem when politicians start looking to the CHP, trained security and law enforcement personnel, to be their chauffeurs, and that's what's happened," said consumer watchdog Doug Heller.

O'Connell is not the only elected official who gets a personal security detail from the CHP. Along with the governor and lieutenant governor, the CHP also provides bodyguards for the secretary of state, treasurer, insurance commissioner and controller.

We filed several public records requests to find out how much it costs to protect all these officials, and we discovered that expenditures at the CHP's Protective Services Division have tripled from $14.4 million in fiscal year 2002-2003 up to more than $43 million the last fiscal year.

"Spending $30 million more on security over six years just doesn't make sense," says Heller.

Heller, a taxpayer advocate, says the government should not be spending so much on bodyguards for officials during a financial crisis.

"The amount of expenditures we've seen, especially in the last five or six years on security, is just out of proportion with reality," he says. "Especially given the state of our budget."

In the last fiscal year alone, the CHP spent just over a million dollars guarding the five constitutional officers -- $224,193 for O'connell, $139,954 for Treasurer Bill Lockyer, $172,225 for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, $309,436 for Controller John Chiang, and $214,335 for Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

Poizner's CHP bodyguard even accompanies him while he's on out on the campaign trail, running for governor.

"I would really urge any statewide elected official who uses this detail for personal or other political reasons to begin the process of reimbursing right now, and backdate it to the first day they used it for private and personal needs, because that's unacceptable," says Heller.

We asked Poizner if he would reimburse the state for the cost of using his CHP bodyguard at campaign events when we caught up with him at a press conference last week.

"We've studied that question very carefully," said Poizner. "Unfortunately, I'm always insurance commissioner no matter what; 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I'm insurance commissioner."

Noyes: "Have you actually, personally received threats?"

Chiang: "I cannot share that with you. You should check with the CHP."

Chiang would not discuss specific threats with us, and the CHP declined our requests for an on-camera interview. But records show that the cost of protecting the controller has risen the most among the state's constitutional officers, except for the governor and lieutenant governor -- up from nearly $87,000 in fiscal year 2003-2004 to more than $300,000 the last fiscal year.

Noyes: "Why is it getting more expensive to protect you?"

Chiang: "Well, we just had the worst financial crisis in California history. We're not out of the woods yet."

Chiang says some people posted angry messages on the Internet after he announced this year that the state was going to delay tax refunds and would pay creditors, businesses and taxpayers with IOUs instead of cash.

"There have been times when I've felt threatened," says Bowen.

Bowen would not discuss specific threats either, but she says the angry scenes at recent town hall meetings over President Barack Obama's healthcare plan demonstrate the kind of hostility that elected officials can face at public events.

"I want to be accessible. and that means I'm on the go, I'm talking to real people, and that comes with some risks," she says.

However, some state officials don't just use their bodyguards when they're out in public. When we met O'Connell last month inside a secure state building with restricted public access, his CHP bodyguard was right there by his side.

Noyes: "Is the danger real enough to be spending a million dollars a year for these lower level officials?"

O'Connell: "For me, it's very important to move around the state, to let people know when I'm in a particular community, to be as efficient as possible, and make sure that we're travelling as safely as possible."

We called police agencies in the 10 states with the biggest populations, and none of them provide security for as many lower-level state officials as we do here California. In most states, only two officials, including the governor, get their own security detail, compared to seven officials that the CHP protects in California.

You can read some of the supporting documents in a new I-Team blog.

Have a tip on this or another investigation? E-mail the ABC7 I-Team or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.

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