SACRAMENTO — The irregularities at California's state parks department — and the director's resulting departure — blindsided the nonprofit groups that had been scrambling for donations to keep open 70 parks once doomed by funding shortages.
Their work to keep park gates open from Mendocino to San Diego past a July 1 closure deadline suddenly appeared meaningless when reports surfaced last week that the Department of Parks and Recreation had secret accounts holding more than $53 million.
"I've had four emergency board meetings this weekend and I'm a little tired," said Carolyn Schoff, president of the California League of Parks Associations, which has coordinated groups that raised millions of dollars trying to save threatened parks. "This has been an outrage for the public, and we feel outraged as well. Even if this money gets returned back, it's not resolving the crisis, and now the public trust has been betrayed."
The scandal erupted days after reports of secret parks department vacation time buyouts of more than $271,000. Ruth Coleman, director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, resigned Friday, and chief deputy Michael Harris was let go amid questions about the underreported funds.
Now, the California Attorney General's office and the Department of Finance are looking into the parks department's spending, though officials said they had not uncovered other unauthorized spending beyond the vacation buyout program.
It will be up to the attorney general's office to decide if there were any criminal or civil violations in the parks department, said Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jerry Brown. Shum Preston, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, declined comment beyond saying investigators will do a thorough review.
In addition to the parks department investigations, the Department of Finance is reviewing all the state's 560 special funds to make sure the actual fund balances match what has been reported to the administration and the state controller.