Report: $20M for state parks purposely hidden

January 4, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Seventy state parks were scheduled to shut down last summer because of budget shortfalls, but just as the closures were about to happen, a surplus of $54 million was found hidden in two of the agency's funds.

While accounting errors were largely to blame for the accumulation, no one reported the extra money.

A new stinging report by the state attorney general found $20 million of it, partly collected through entrance fees, was intentionally concealed.

"By all accounts, there was some covering-up that was done," said Richard Stapler with the California Natural Resources Agency.

Investigators found the failure to report the surplus became "conscious and deliberate" possibly as early as 1999. Top budget and accounting officers were all aware of the discrepancy, and numerous individuals failed to take appropriate action. In fact, lower level employees just followed orders from supervisors to keep quiet.

Former State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, who resigned as a result of the scandal, declined to participate in the attorney general's interrogation.

But interviews with dozens of employees have led auditors to conclude higher ups at headquarters were afraid their budget would be cut even more if the extra monies were revealed, and then were too embarrassed to disclose the problem.

"Whether that rises to a criminal level or not, we're going to have to make that determination," said Stapler.

All but one employee heavily involved in the budget scandal left or retired from state government.

It is interesting to note those same people also concocted a vacation buyout for dozens of park employees who got cash for unused leave.

"We need the public trust. And when a situation like this arises its very detrimental to the public's trust in a department that we all love - the department of parks and recreation," said state Senator Mark Leno, D- San Francisco, who chairs the budget committee.

In the end, the 70 state parks did stay open. Lawmakers spent the surplus money on parks and policies were put in place to prevent future deception.