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State lawmakers order parks department audit

  • In this May 13, 2011 file photo Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, discusses the possible closure of 70 of California's state parks due to budget cuts, during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif. A former state parks official said he repeatedly told his superiors about more than $53 million hidden in two accounts that could have been used to help California avoid the threat of closing 70 state parks, a newspaper reported Thursday. Manuel Lopez, former deputy director of administrative services for the Department of Parks and Recreation, said he informed agency Director Ruth Coleman about a $20 million surplus in the Parks and Recreation Fund at least five times over a span of about five years, The Sacramento Bee reported. ((AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file))

SACRAMENTO — California's state parks department will be subject to an independent audit to examine how and why nearly $54 million in two special funds went unreported even as budget cuts were threatening to close 70 parks.

The revelation of the hidden money earlier this summer threatens Democratic hopes of passing a ballot measure that would increase taxes by undermining the public's trust in how state government handles tax money.

Democrats favor the review in hopes of restoring voters' confidence, while many Republican lawmakers say they would like a broader review to see if state government has other hidden pots of cash.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the audit.

Reports of the underreported $54 million surfaced after The Sacramento Bee reported that some Department of Parks and Recreation administrators had taken unauthorized cash-outs of vacation time worth more than $271,000.

The hidden parks money prompted a review of 560 state special funds by the governor's department of finance and a separate investigation into the parks department itself. The Attorney General is also looking into the scandal, and an Assembly budget subcommittee is expected to take up the special funds issue Thursday.

But lawmakers said these efforts were not enough.

"There is a whole culture of deception and entitlement far greater than we anticipated within the state parks department," said Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin. "Californians feel betrayed, and this audit is essential to gaining back their trust."

A bipartisan group of 13 lawmakers requested the parks audit, and it appeared to have unanimous support. Interim parks director Janelle Beland spoke briefly to express her intent to cooperate with the investigation.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises money to benefit state parks, said she hoped the audit would head off any backlash from donors.

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