Your windfall’s waiting

Last year, Controller Steve Westly began spreading the word about a new Web site where Californians could search for lost property held by the state. Westly, who was campaigning for governor at the time, isn’t the first of California’s controllers to bask in the goodwill generated by a program that could mean a windfall for me or you.

In reality, the program is a windfall for California’s budget, as hundreds of millions of dollars are funneled each year into the general fund. Of the $5 billion currently held in safekeeping, the state likely will keep 80 percent, which will never be claimed.

Originally designed as a lost-and-found to reunite owners or their heirs with lost or forgotten property, the program has been changed over the years by the Legislature and controller to make it easier for the state to seize property and increasingly difficult for owners to find their property or get full value from its sale.

Not surprisingly, some lost-property owners cried foul. As their three lawsuits move closer to trial, Stephen James recounts in this week’s cover story details from a declaration filed by the retired auditor of the controller’s office that seem to back up the plaintiffs’ allegations. In a sworn affidavit, this whistleblower claims that the state implemented changes knowing they were illegal. The controller’s office calls the allegations hearsay but has in the meantime changed its practices until the cases are decided. If proved, the alleged misconduct could cost Californians up to $1.5 billion.

This is an important story, though it’s one that might feel abstract to readers. But that money belongs to real people like me and you. James introduces readers to three people suing over disposition of their property. And a check of the unclaimed-property program’s Web site brought the story home for me when I found my own mother’s name listed as having “lost” shares of stock in Broadway Stores. She once worked at that chain, which was dissolved more than a decade ago.

The controller’s office says it doesn’t have the money to locate lost-property owners, so it relies on the media to get the word out. OK, here’s the word: Check it out for yourself. Your windfall’s waiting: