AG gives Parks Dept. employees immunity

AG gives Parks Dept. employees immunity

Aug. 21, 2012

By Katy Grimes

SACRAMENTO — The document dump over the weekend of the State Parks and Recreation Department employees interview transcripts with the state Attorney General’s office should be the script for a Greek tragedy, or a really stupid sitcom. Either way, it wouldn’t be very funny.

There were several startling aspects of the more than 30 interviews with state parks department employees. However, the most troublesome was that the Deputy Attorney Generals conducting the interviews office gave nearly all of the employees immunity from criminal prosecution for anything they said, before even questioning them.

This would suggest a strong need for a special prosecutor, as it appears that even the Attorney General’s office has a hand in the financial scandal.

Playing politics

In a recent televised episode of Politics on Tap with Greg Lucas,  I had a chance to ask the now former Parks and Recreation Department Director Ruth Coleman about a $10 million loan the agency was listed as making to the state from somewhere in its budget.  Coleman insinuated that I was full of hooey because everyone knew that the parks department was in budgetary crisis and facing the closure of 70 state parks.

The “loan” was a line item I had seen listed in the state budget. Apparently, this was just one of many loans regularly made to the state from the 500 special funds held closely by state agencies, but apparently not on the “regular” books maintained by the state Department of Finance.

Or at least that’s what the finance department wants everyone to believe.

That’s the game played in state politics in California. The state pretends to be broke, when really it just moves numbers from one column to the next in order to make the taxpayers think they have to approve  tax increases. But this doesn’t jibe with each of the state agencies racing to spend yearly budgets so they will receive the same amount or more the following budget year.

We’ve all heard the stories: government agencies scrambling to spend end-of-year budgets, buy new office furniture, computers, or fleets of cars. They’ll do anything to spend the full budget.

It wasn’t difficult to find this when reading the transcripts from the recent interviews by the Attorney General’s office of Parks and Rec department employees, and see the lies perpetrated within just one of the state agencies.

What’s “special” about LAO report?

The Legislative Analyst’s Office prepared a special report to the Senate Budget Committee about the more than 500 special funds maintained by state agencies. In the report, the LAO stated: “Following the discovery of higher balances in Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) accounts and press speculation concerning balances in other funds, DOF conducted a review of special fund balances. On August 3, 2012, DOF reported that, in the aggregate, the state’s special funds may have had $415 million less in fund balances at the end of 2010-11, compared to figures included in the 2012-13 Governor’s Budget documents.”

But it wasn’t just “press speculation” that brought this mess to everyone’s attention; the parks department had been forced into conducting an internal audit because it had to, once the vacation buyout scheme included too many parks department employees. People all over the state, in and out of the parks department, knew about the vacation buyout scheme, and the budgetary trickery done by senior parks department management staff.

However, the soft-peddling done by the LAO in the report is suspect. A capitol staffer who asked to remain anonymous reported to me that the Department of Parks and Recreation had a hand in the report, and was allowed to edit certain parts of it before the report was published. If this is indeed what happened, the LAO analyst who allowed this should be held accountable.

Tip of the iceberg

While California was preparing to close 70 state parks earlier this year, senior Parks Department employees were taking unauthorized, large vacation buyouts. And this had been going on for several years. The final audit of the vacation buyout totals approximately $566,000, and doesn’t include 2004-05 budget year.

Statewide, park volunteers, donors and non-profit organizations entered into public-private partnerships to save the parks.  They raised funds, donated their time, and performed maintenance on state parks.

During this time of crisis, the Parks Department Director Ruth Coleman testified to the Legislature about the need to close the 70 parks and lay off agency staff. She has since resigned, and placed the blame on senior administrative employees, while insisting that she did not know about the secret special funds accounts or the vacation buyout scandal.

Legislative oversight

Both houses of the Legislature have held legislative committee hearings to supposedly uncover what happened within the parks department, when, and who knew about it. The Assembly hearing was a farcical exercise in futility. But the Senate hearing produced some information, even if it just became more clear that there was a cover up.

Former President Nixon didn’t get impeached for the Watergate scandal–it was the cover up that brought him down.

LAO analyst Jason Sisney told the Senate committee that the Parks Department situation is “unacceptable,” but isolated. Sisney also said that discrepancies in other special fund accounts discovered in an audit last week were a result of “sloppiness” and “confusion.”

The Department of Finance, the State Controller’s office, the Attorney General’s office and even John Laird, the state Natural Resource secretary, have all claimed that they had no idea this was going on within the parks agency. But someone had to approve the budget, the fund transfers and loans, and someone had to approve and write the checks for the vacation buyouts.

Acting Parks and Recreation Department Director Janelle Beland also provided little or nothing at the Senate hearing. Beland was curt and condescending with Senators, and much of her testimony caused State Finance Director Ana Matosantos to lose her poker face, and raise her eyebrows a couple of times. (Aug. 15 Senate and Budget Fiscal review committee hearing)

Despite formal, written requests by Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, Senate Budget Vice Chair Bill Emmerson and Assembly Budget Vice Chair Jim Nielsen, requesting that several key parks department employees testify under oath with the goal of determining the scope of the financial irregularities recently involving the department, none of the key officials involved in the state parks funding scandal was present to testify.

“Californians are rightfully outraged by the state parks funding scandal and I share in their frustration,” Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, said.  “The absence of several officials who were either involved in the scandal or who had direct knowledge of it calls into question how serious the committee is about resolving the parks funding scandal.”

 A state “reprimand”

There were several parks department employees given formal reprimands for their parts in the vacation buyout scheme. But according to several capitol sources, these parks department employees still work for the state.

The reprimands identify the alleged fraud perpetrated by the employees, but are just written warnings. What does it take to fire a state employee if lying, cheating, and committing fraud are not termination offenses?

Coleman has been seen several times recently at the state’s Department of Water Resources downtown building. Some are speculating if that is where she will land once the dust settles.

Coleman was the director of the Parks Department for 10 years. It is difficult to believe that she was not aware of the special fund accounts, or even the vacation buyout scheme. And if she truly was unaware, as the agency top dog, she should be terminated for gross negligence and incompetence.

Apathy toward government employees

The reason that taxpayers and voters have such apathy and disdain for government employees is because there is no justice when crimes are perpetrated in government. The dishonesty and corruption is allowed, and even encouraged in some cases, but no one gets fired, no one loses pension benefits, and no one goes to prison.

The “press speculation” into the Parks and Recreation department scandals is apparently the only influence on the state to fully investigate the alleged fraud and cover ups, and discipline accordingly. Continued state employment for those found guilty should not be an option.

Perhaps since the Attorney General’s office, the investigating agency, may have had a hand in the cover up, and has offered immunity to parks employees prior to the investigation, lawmakers should demand a special prosecutor be brought in to do the dirty work, as they have in other state scandals.

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  1. Lowell Landowski
    Lowell Landowski 21 August, 2012, 09:12

    It is simple. It was a crony conspiracy to defraud the public. The cronies got promoted, favored treatment, and rewarded with consulting jobs after retirement, form the various and sundry foundations and groups that got to shake the public money tree for donations to save field park units that really did not need to be “closed” in the first place. This was about handing the keys over to for and not for profits to take over and run. The investigators act like they are trying to find a needle in a hay stack, when they need to take the log out of their eye. The rank and file civil servants were the only ones who, all along, were trying to resist the great corruption in the Resources Agency, Finance, and in the two governor’s offices. All the rest of the powers that be turned their backs on us. Time for justice to be served, time for the public to be served right.

    Reply this comment
  2. computernerd
    computernerd 21 August, 2012, 09:39

    Can you check your links..??? I have tried to get to see some of the documents and they are password protected. Is the AG trying to now hide the docs..???

    Reply this comment
  3. OddThat
    OddThat 21 August, 2012, 09:45

    When I was working as a Quality Control Supervisor, I strived to come in “under budget”. When I did, (and I always did) I received a bonus;government workers do not have incentives to come in at or under budget. A special prosecutor is a good idea; might serve as a warning to all the other government agencies that are committing the same crimes.

    Reply this comment
  4. Lowell Landowski
    Lowell Landowski 21 August, 2012, 09:57

    Certain things can be privatized, but if you privatize the administrative inner workings of government agencies, you will end up with the kind of corruption happened right under our noses in our California’s State Government. There must be a strong separation of public responsibilities and private operators. Otherwise the Chamber of Commerce will be lobbying for more government spending for more privately run government programs. The checkered pants republicans and the far left preservationist joined to rob the public; they treated us little guys like dirt, those societal elites. Restore the California Civil Service System, do not unless you want to be robbed blind hand it over to the cronies and consultants of the private for and not for profit big shot groups.

    Reply this comment
  5. Donkey
    Donkey 21 August, 2012, 10:28

    It is a RAGWUS feeders paradise, steal all you can before the curtain comes down is their cry!! 🙂

    Reply this comment
  6. Katy Grimes
    Katy Grimes 21 August, 2012, 10:32

    Oh my. The links were good as of this morning. But I took screen shots, which I will post.

    Reply this comment
  7. Edward Steele, Chief Investigator
    Edward Steele, Chief Investigator 21 August, 2012, 10:34

    whats ragass???

    Reply this comment
  8. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 21 August, 2012, 11:50

    However, the most troublesome was that the Deputy Attorney Generals conducting the interviews office gave nearly all of the employees immunity from criminal prosecution for anything they said, before even questioning them.

    OK, let me state by saying I am no fan of the gov or their employees, but if you are conducting a criminal investigation you cannot expect people to make voluntary statements when it could land the in the joint. Three choices= Either do the investigation without interviews, read them their rights and then question them, or you give limited immunity.

    Reply this comment
  9. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 21 August, 2012, 11:50

    Whats a sock puppet????

    Reply this comment
  10. Dyspeptic
    Dyspeptic 21 August, 2012, 13:22

    Rex, I was thinking the same thing. Only a fool would give potentially self incriminating testimony on the assumption they might get immunity. The immunity comes first, in writing, then the testimony. Having said that, it is a minor criticism of an otherwise good article.

    “What’s a sock puppet????”
    Ed-Ted, I think that was a question for you.

    Can’t help thinking about the parallels between this and Operation Fast and Furious, where DOJ lied, subverted and covered up from the beginning. Of course, in Fast and Furious Holder lied and people died, but who cares about that? Lets obsess over Mitt Romney’s tax returns right? Who cares about dead Border Patrol agents and Mexican citizens killed with guns obtained with BATFE complicity. Who cares that our Federal government intentionally supplied thousands of untraced semi-auto rifles to Mexican criminal syndicates. Who cares about international treaty violations and a corrupt U.S. Department of Justice. Bring on the bread and circuses, woo hooo!

    Reply this comment
  11. Edward Steele, Chief Investigator
    Edward Steele, Chief Investigator 21 August, 2012, 13:28

    d-septic— the poodle thinks I am everyone out here— I like it that way

    Reply this comment
  12. Lowell Landowski
    Lowell Landowski 21 August, 2012, 13:32

    The high and mighty social elites, that run the foundations, figured out how to make a money tree and how to keep shaking it, and shaking it, and shaking it. The crony managers kept this quite; we do have lots of money and extra managers after all, and hoped they would be rewarded with a fat high paying foundation consulting job upon retirement. What is so hard to figure out? – about this crony conspiracy, all you have to do is figure out – is who made out, and who got screwed. The screwed where the rank and file civil servants, who got stepped on for doing the right thing to resist the wanton corruption, the people who made donations based on a false justification, and the tax payers. The crooked managers, the high ups in the administration, and the slimy foundations, and their kin organizations, all made out like bandits.

    Reply this comment
  13. Edward Steele, Chief Investigator
    Edward Steele, Chief Investigator 21 August, 2012, 14:09

    Lowell— Are you me too?


    Reply this comment
  14. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 21 August, 2012, 14:21

    Teddy bring back Queeg or Uhaul, I like their peronas better than the Ted one 🙂

    Reply this comment
  15. Edward Steele, Chief Investigator
    Edward Steele, Chief Investigator 21 August, 2012, 15:07

    relax……………..mmmmmm……….in due time!

    Reply this comment
  16. Queeg
    Queeg 21 August, 2012, 16:01

    Who cares about a bunch of psuedo nature/history freaks hiding a few bucks off budget for rainy day expenses to fix washed out bridges and paint some old buildings!

    Do you truly believe the Federal Reserve and the big greedy banks are telling us about trillions of off balance sheet liabilities?

    Do you believe CWD posters are part of the solution on any red meat topic….hasn’t happened yet!

    Ride your hay wagons home and bury your pitch forks, and crack out a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon while awaiting drying of your skivvies at the truck stop laundry…

    Reply this comment
  17. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 21 August, 2012, 16:27

    Dat’s what Im talking about 🙂

    Reply this comment
  18. the Rt Rev Ted Steele
    the Rt Rev Ted Steele 21 August, 2012, 17:57

    Queeg— you slay me!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply this comment
  19. Lowell Landowski
    Lowell Landowski 6 January, 2013, 17:32

    Well Queeg you are out of date on the company spin. It is now we were afraid of more budget cuts and were embarassed. The rainy day fix roads and fences reserve did not make sense as the company spin, since they were closing parks. Does it have to rain parks before the rainy day reserve is used? Now the new company spins is BS too. The State Parks Managment were spending wildly and closing and privatizing parks, then key State Park Managers got to go to work for the public donation raking in 3P save the parks oganizations. A great set up for the favored few, as long as no one asked the hard questions, like, what about looking at our own budget? It was a good gig with it lasted.

    Reply this comment

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