State parks director: negligent or incompetent?

State parks director: negligent or incompetent?

July 20, 2012

Katy Grimes: The California State Parks agency has been sullied by a growing scandal.

Three days ago I wrote about the illegal vacation buyout scandal in the State Parks and Recreation agency in “Scandalous state parks department needs privatization.” I questioned who it was that authorized the checks that were paid to the parks employees, and said that everyone involved should be brought up on charges.

Today, Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned, and her second in command was fired.

That’s a good start. But according to my sources at the state, Coleman is getting off easy. My sources said that this was a highly orchestrated resignation, and appointment of an interim parks director. It’s carefully orchestrated damage control, along with very little hard-hitting journalism over a scandal.

Janelle Beland, former senior advisor and caucus director for Sen. Pres Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, has been named Interim Director.

My sources work for the state. Apparently because the parks department was conducting its own bogus internal audit of the vacation buyout scandal, no one at the Parks Department would officially confirm the allegations when I inquired.

Now that the story has broken wide open, more information is coming out from sources all over the state. But my sources, who wish to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, have clammed-up since the story broke fearing whistleblower retribution.

But they still want to make sure that the goings-on within the Parks Department is not sugar-coated, or covered-up.

Issues and Allegations

My sources say that most of the parks employees in the headquarter administrative office in Sacramento knew what was going on. They say that director Coleman not only knew about the vacation buyout scandal, but that she sat in on the meetings as the scheme was hatched by senior parks employee, Manuel Thomas Lopez, who was demoted in October, and resigned in the Spring.

But my sources say Lopez was not alone. He couldn’t have been operating solo in a vacation buyout scandal. As I wrote earlier this week, someone had to authorize and approve the buyout requests in order for employees to receive the money from the state.

According to my sources, an Assistant Personnel Officer for the State Parks Department was responsible for keying in the post-it notes amounts, which were used for the buyout requests to avoid a paper trail.

My sources say that the Personnel officer is now in training to be a peace officer for the department, as a sort of payoff for helping with the scandal. And, that the usual peace officer criteria was waived for this Personnel Officer to change jobs. Adding to this job change, sources say that her husband is allegedly a convicted felon.

Other highly questionable activities allegedly took place within the Parks department as well, according to my sources. In addition to the information that the Parks agency has been sitting on nearly $54 million in surplus money for as long as 12 years, it is widely rumored that Coleman knew about the surplus and approved it, despite the reports where blamed she mid-level managers for the cover-up.

Additionally, they say that the state Parks department intentionally understates and under-projects its annual budget to be able to hide money, despite what the agency receives from the state. And remember that the Parks Department handles a great deal of cash. Sources say that the cash income is also under reported.

During a recent taping of Politics on Tap in which I was a guest panelist, with host Greg Lucas, Coleman talked about the success she was having raising money from private sector donors to keep the state parks open. “We’ve spent the last year-and-a-half working on partnerships,”  Coleman said.

But, Coleman stressed on the show that although almost all of the parks on the original closure list would stay open as of July 1, the donations and financial partnerships, and help in the recently approved state budget doesn’t mean that the crisis is over. “I wouldn’t say they’re safe, I think ‘reprieve’ is a better word,” Coleman said, knowing that there was a $54 million surplus in two accounts, as reported in news stories today.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been threatening to close 70 state parks, claiming that looming budget cuts and the inherent budget deficit were to blame. This is the same tactic the government has been using under Democratic control, to try and squeeze tax increases out of taxpayers. They threaten to cut police, fire fighters, let parks disintegrate, cut back garbage services, and cut teachers, in order for voters to finally become convinced that there is a budget crisis, and vote to pass a tax increase.

It’s a tired, old, worn out lie. Fortunately, California voters have not bought into the lie, and have killed the last eight attempts to raise taxes in ballot initiatives.

During the taping of Politics on Tap, Coleman even expressed dismay that voters killed the $18 DMV tax ballot initiative, which would have gone to helping fund state parks.

Allegations and Issues

These issues taken individually is cause enough for an in-depth investigation, preferably by an outside agency. Taken together, one can assume that as the layers are peeled back, there will be more issues, allegations, illegal and scandalous behavior uncovered.

The buck always stops with the agency head, but it appears that it didn’t with Coleman in charge. Coleman’s resignation is a face-saving gesture, and will ensure that she receives her state benefits and pension, and possibly, find a soft landing in another agency. However, given the criminal financial allegations involved with her agency, under her leadership of one decade, it is debatable whether or not she is entitled to state benefits or state employment any longer.

She either knew about the schemes and scandalous behavior, or she was oblivious to it, making her negligent, and incompetent, or complicit.

Investigate this

Earlier this week, Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin, called for an Parks Department investigation, and has now sent a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee calling for a further review of the State Parks Department.

“It is clear that our office has only touched the tip of the iceberg on the culture of corruption within state government,” Gaines said.  “Where was the Department of Finance and the Controller’s Office in reviewing these obvious accounting gimmicks?”


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