The California Department of Food and Agriculture recently completed an audit of the California Avocado Commission that contains financial improprieties. The CDFA received the final audit last week and immediately referred it the state Department of Justice for review.
The audit concluded that employees and board members at the commission enjoyed lavish perks and benefited from as much as $2 million in questionable spending in the last three years, the Los Angeles Times reported. Among the benefits to staff members cited by the auditors were home remodeling projects, tickets to sporting events, gym memberships and vitamins, regularly delivered restaurant meals, clothing from high-end retailers described as uniforms, generous auto allowances and $850 hotel rooms at four-star resorts.
During the three-year audit period, the commission’s 18 employees used commission credit cards to run up more than $1.5 million in charges for "a significant amount of discretionary expenses that appeared questionable at best and even personal at times," the report said.
About $17,000 was spent on gifts, meals and flowers to celebrate employees’ birthdays, employment anniversaries and other special occasions, the report said. An additional $39,000 purchased clothes at Nordstrom, Talbots, Ann Taylor and other stores that the commission dubbed "uniforms" after spending $8,700 to embroider the commission’s name and logo onto them.
Commission board members, their spouses, guests and employees spent thousands of dollars on "massages, nail service, facials and body treatments" during meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel and at luxury spas in La Jolla and Del Mar in San Diego County, the newspaper reported. The items "appeared to be lavish in nature," auditors said, "and may be considered gifts of public funds."
The commission is bankrolled by mandatory fees – 2.6% of sales – collected from the state’s 6,000 avocado growers. Commission board Chairman Rick Shade, a Carpinteria grower who has been on the board for a decade, defended some of the spending and disputed some of the criticism. "I don’t feel it was all that lavish," he told the Times, "but I agree that certain areas had problems."
The commission’s former president, Mark Affleck, resigned from his $300,000-plus-a year job last May after 20 years. According to a report in the New York Times, Affleck now works for a ministry at the prominent Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA.