There's no doubting the immense popularity of California's state parks.
More than 6 million people visit annually, and the outpouring of public support that forestalled the closure of 70 parks was virtually unprecedented.
So it was all the more infuriating to learn last weekend that a high-ranking official of the state Department of Parks and Recreation orchestrated a secret vacation buyout program, nicking taxpayers for $270,000 while ordinary citizens were promising their time and money to keep parks open. That was followed Friday by a second stomach punch, a report that the department squirreled away $54 million in surplus funds while pushing park closures to cover a $22 million budget cut.
Sacramento Bee reporter Matt Weiser, a former Press Democrat staff writer, broke both stories.
Weiser's first report detailed a special perk provided to a 56 department insiders and the scheme to keep it a secret. Most of those employees took advantage of the buyouts in May, June and July of last year — on the heels of the decision to close parks as a cost-cutting measure. The buyouts were made available only to employees at parks headquarters in Sacramento.
Weiser's second scoop identified $33.5 million in an off-highway vehicle fund and $20.3 million in a park fund. The surpluses built up over as much as 12 years, and neither was reported to the state controller.
Ruth Coleman, the state parks director, resigned, and a second official was fired Friday, but issues regarding both scandals remain to be addressed.
Cashing out unused vacation is all but unknown in the private sector, but it's occasionally permitted by state agencies. However, it hasn't been authorized by the state Natural Resources Agency, which includes the parks department, since 2007 because of chronic budget deficits.
There's a name for the skullduggery described in the Bee story: corruption.
To avoid a paper trail, buyout requests weren't submitted on official forms. Some were delivered on Post-It notes, and the claims were coded as “overtime” rather than vacation or personal leave to avoid detection, according to an internal audit and a subsequent report by the state Justice Department quoted by the newspaper. Investigators were told that the arrangement “was not to be referred to or discussed in email communications.”