AG gives Parks Dept. employees immunity

by CalWatchdog Staff | August 21, 2012 8:33 am

Aug. 21, 2012

By Katy Grimes

SACRAMENTO — The document dump[1] 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[3] 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[4] 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[5] 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[6] 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[7] 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[8]. 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[9])

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[10] 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[11] 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[12] state[13] scandals.

  1. document dump:
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  3. immunity:
  4. Politics on Tap:
  5. transcripts:
  6. special report:
  7. knew:
  8. buyouts:
  9. hearing:
  10. formal reprimands:
  11. reprimands:
  12. other:
  13. state:

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