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Avocado Comm. audit sparks grower anger

A scathing audit that recently rocked the California Avocado Commission was sliced, diced and dissected by more than 300 angry growers at a Fallbrook meeting last week.

The session – the second in a pair of annual meetings staged since a state audit was released – brought calls for staff and board resignations as well as sharp criticism of “lavish” spending on professional sports tickets, luxury hotel suites, massage and spa services, meals, personal vehicle maintenance and other questionable expenses.

In response, the three-hour meeting at Pala Mesa Resort drew board apologies, explanations and reports that some reforms have been put in place and others will be enacted or explored.

“I’m not asking you to forgive us. That would be asking too much,” said Tom Bellamore, who took over as the commission’s acting president following his predecessor’s abrupt resignation last May. “I ask that you give the organization your trust, because that will see us through this crisis.”

But many of the 40 speakers continued to question the board’s oversight skills and said too much damage has been done for the commission to regain the trust of growers.

About 6,000 avocado growers statewide pay the organization 2.6 percent of their sales revenues to promote and market their fruit.

“You have lost my trust absolutely and unequivocally, and as long as you stay in place you won’t have it,” said Russ Hatfield, who grows avocados on 22 acres in the Fallbrook area.

Many other comments were equally searing.

Susan Egge, who helps tend 14 acres of avocados in the De Luz area, asked whether a “culture of corruption and greed” has been erased within the commission that spends nearly $12 million annually.

“We need new management,” Egge said.

Many growers complained that the costly salaries and spending abuses were racked up as they were plagued by fires, freezes, drought conditions and a flood of foreign imports.

Several speakers demanded to know precisely how and when the spending abuses were detected and what steps have been taken in their wake.

Three security guards were hired for the meeting by the commission as a safety precaution, but their services were not needed as emotions flared but tempers remained in check.

The tenor was akin to that of a similar meeting held by the 15-member commission board two days earlier in Carpinteria.

Much of the anger was aimed at Mark Affleck, the former president who resigned as work began early last year on internal financial reviews and the state audit.

The 53-page compliance audit was released last month by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Affleck, who earned $300,000 a year in his commission job, could not be reached last Friday on his cellular phone or at Saddleback Church in Orange County, where he now works.

Carol Steed, a Valley Center grower and commission vice chairperson, complained that Affleck, a 20-year employee of the quasi-governmental organization, had managed through “intimidation, deception and control.”

Board Chairman Rick Shade, a Carpinteria grower, agreed and claimed that Affleck forged documents, withheld information from directors and hid unauthorized practices until curious directors began probing spending accounts.

Director Tom Pecht, an Oxnard grower, said Affleck had given him tickets to attend three Mighty Ducks hockey games.

At that time, Pecht said he thought Affleck had personally purchased the season tickets rather than charged them to commission accounts.

“I didn’t have any idea they were paid for by [the commission],” Pecht said, noting that he planned to reimburse the agency for those ticket costs.

Besides the $86,629 spent on hockey tickets, commission funds were also used to buy Angels baseball tickets that cost $36,598 over three seasons, the audit stated.

More than $17,000 was spent to renovate Affleck’s home office and commission funds were also used for gym memberships, auto repairs, vitamins, drug prescriptions, home Internet and fax services and career coaches for senior management.

Expenditures for staff lunches totaled about $66,000 and another $79,000 was spent on board meals and office food and supplies.

The audit notes that $359,000 was paid in employee incentive bonuses in March 2007, a time when the commission approved $1.2 million in spending cuts.

The audit was especially critical of conferences held in 2006 and 2007 at resorts in La Jolla, Dana Point and Del Mar.

At the Dana Point conference, the commission was billed $850 a night for three hotel rooms and $300 a night for 12 others.

About $13,000 was spent on meals, $2,000 on alcohol and $3,700 on massages, nail services and body and facial treatments, according to the audit report.

Similar costs were incurred at the other two conferences.

“These costs appear to be personal in nature and may be considered a gift of public funds,” the audit concluded.

It also noted that commission credit cards had been used for more than $1.5 million in charges “that appeared questionable at best.”

The audit recommended that 24 key recommendations be implemented and noted many of those changes had already been made by the commission board.

Such steps included halting sports ticket purchases, taking away credit cards and eliminating conferences on nutrition and other topics that may have marketing value.

Prior to the meeting, a report that gave answers to questions raised by the audit was distributed to members.

The eight-page report said the use of credit cards for agency expenses was once “standard procedure” because legitimate marketing and travel costs were tracked and paid that way.

The report said sports tickets can be helpful in entertaining important clients and can be used as promotional incentives at trade shows or other functions.

It said about $100,000 was “misspent,” and some of those funds have since been recovered and other reimbursements are now being sought.

Shade said the 31-year-old organization is seeking repayment from Affleck, and legal proceedings and criminal prosecution are also possible. He said executive pay studies were used to set Affleck’s salary.

He said the commission might also move its office from an Irvine business park that many growers deem too opulent and too far from agricultural areas.

Some board members urged growers to resist an announced effort to seek an emergency referendum aimed at removing board members.

They asked growers to let the commission proceed with further reforms at an April retreat and then allow voters to decide whether change the board’s composition this fall, when seven seats are open.

Several speakers urged the growers to exercise restraint, and some chided audience members for getting involved in a board that does not pay a salary but offers members a $100-per-meeting stipend plus travel costs.

“This is absolutely the worst time to abolish the California Avocado Commission. It’s the time to reinvent it,” Mike Browne, a vice president for Calavo Growers Inc., said in his remarks to the audience.

Afterward, though, Browne said he understood the anger expressed by growers who had lost faith in the commission’s leaders.

“There was a lot of venting. That’s part of crisis recovery,” Browne said as he walked to his car. “A lot of the growers feel snake-bit, and I don’t blame them.”

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