As millions of Californians enjoyed the state's campgrounds and beaches, state audit reports show a high-ranking deputy director named Manuel Thomas Lopez was secretly carrying out an unauthorized vacation buyout program for certain park employees between May and July of last year. Due to budget cuts, such perks haven't been allowed since 2007. 56 people took advantage, with Lopez getting one of the largest checks at more than $20,000. In all, the state doled out nearly $300,000 at a time when state parks have $1 billion worth of maintenance to do, like fix restrooms, and 70 parks faced closure at one point.
A whistleblower came forward. "Some employee did the right thing and came forward to say is this OK to do? And, we said 'no,'" recalled Roy Stearns with the California Parks Department although he added that it wasn't until after the checks were cut. ABC7 News' copy of the audits accuses Lopez of telling employees not to discuss anything in an email or memo, and that a post-it note, in some cases, would suffice. Then, payroll codes were falsified with the hours being keyed in as overtime.
Investigators concluded Lopez authorized the payouts because his department would lose any money unspent at the close of the fiscal year on June 30 and too many workers were above the 640-hour limit that state workers are allowed to accrue for vacation buyouts at retirement.
Retired Parks Deputy Director Ted Jackson is livid because some parks don't need much to stay open. "There were a number of parks that only needed $100,000, $50,000, $200,000. That would have got them through so that they wouldn't be on the closure list," he said.
The Parks Department points out funds from a different budget year would not have saved the parks on the closure list this year. Still, park visitors can certainly see what the money could have spent it on. "There's less maintenance on the lawn. The bathrooms are falling apart. The tables, in fact, the ones we're sitting at, kind of dilapidated," park visitor Kerri Monis said. "They're dirty. There's not really any lifeguards here. Lots of trash," Douglas Barton told ABC7 News.
Neither audits will result in criminal charges because employees are entitled to their accrued vacation. They just got it early. After being demoted, Lopez resigned a few months ago, before he could be further disciplined.