(Web Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional information as of Jan. 20, 5:00 p.m.).

(Jan. 16, 11:38 a.m.; UPDATED, Jan. 20, 5:00 p.m.) A decision on whether legal action may be taken against the Irvine-based California Avocado Commission could be weeks or even months away, said a spokesman for the state’s Department of Justice.

At issue are commission purchases that a California Department of Food and Agriculture audit found questionable. As a result, A.G. Kawamura, agriculture secretary, directed an audit summary be forwarded to the state’s Attorney General’s Office for review. That happened on Jan. 6.

Grower-shipper members of the commission’s board of directors requested the audit in May, nearly simultaneous with the resignation of president and chief executive officer Mark Affleck.

“We welcomed the audit,” said Rick Shade, chairman of the board. “I’m sad and very sorry that there were things to find.”

Referring audit summaries to the Department of Justice is not uncommon, said Steve Lyle, director of public affairs for the food and agriculture agency.

The audit summary, released by the CDFA, covered three years and focused on expenses that totaled $1.5 million. However, the questionable charges were no more than $300,000, Shade said. However, the state has a different opinion of the amount of unnecessary expenses. Page 9 of the reportable findings report reads, “It appears the unnecessary expenses amounted to $345,799 over the 31 months analyzed…”

The auditors were particularly critical of charges incurred by a staff member identified as Employee A. Revelations in the summary make it clear the auditors were referring to Affleck, who spent commission funds to construct and subsequently remodel a home office.

The commission also paid for more than $24,000 worth of equipment for that home office, including a plasma screen television and satellite radio, the summary said. It also noted Employee A returned most of the items or reimbursed the commission for the costs.

Affleck released a statement through a public relations firm.

“For the past several weeks, my attorney has been negotiating a final agreement with the California Avocado Commission that would resolve all issues to its satisfaction,” the statement read. “Most of the matters raised in the audit are issues over which reasonable people can disagree. However, to bring this matter to conclusion, I have offered to accept certain expenses and pay for them personally.”

Other areas of concern to the auditors included entertainment and meeting expenditures, some of which the auditors said appeared to be lavish. They questioned the purchase of season tickets to professional hockey and baseball games.

“Most were legitimate business expenses,” Shade said. “Entertainment — baseball games and that sort of thing — that’s a good way to get your buyers’ attention.”

The avocado commission’s response is included in the 91-page audit summary. In the response, the commission and its board of directors make it clear they agree with most of the audit staff’s recommendations, Shade said.

“In fact, we have in the past several months taken many steps to correct problems even before they appeared in the final audit,” he said.

The auditors charged that Affleck appeared to act on numerous occasions without the approval of the board of directors. However, some board members attended some meetings that the auditors found may have been improper use of grower assessment funds.

They pointed to the 2007 Nutrition Advisory Committee’s annual two-day meeting that racked up more than $11,000 in food and beverage charges plus lodging, which ranged from $300 to $850 per room per night.

Also charged to the commission during the meeting was $3,700 for massages, facials, body treatments and nail care.
Food and beverage charges at the previous year’s nutrition meeting, the summary found, cost the commission nearly $11,000 plus similar room rates. The tab for massages, facials, body treatments and golf was $2,699.

Also noted in the summary was the 2006 board of directors 2½-day planning meeting at which the commission spent more than $16,500 on meals and beverages.

The audit summary and the Justice Department review will have no effect on the day-to-day operation of the commission, Shade said.

Since Affleck’s departure, Tom Bellamore, the commission’s senior vice president, has been acting chief operating officer. The board of directors is scheduled to begin discussions on a successor to Affleck at its next meeting (date to be determined), Shade said. A decision, however, is not imminent.