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State parks department sought to spend extra money

  • 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 — The state Department of Parks and Recreation searched for ways to spend extra money every year despite facing the threat of park closures and forgoing upkeep at its 278 properties, a newspaper reported Sunday.

Newly released transcripts from an internal investigation show a department that wanted to keep secret a reserve of its own special funds to hedge against future financial problems, according to the Sacramento Bee (sacb.ee/PGQMFz). The department spent as much state general fund money each year as it could.

Brown's administration said last month that the parks department had long hidden $54 million without reporting it to the Department of Finance and state lawmakers, who have constitutional authority over spending in California.

An internal audit found the department carried out a secret vacation buyout program for some employees about the same time the agency planned to close 70 state parks due to budget cuts.

Finance officials and the state Department of Justice are investigating further. Longtime state parks director Ruth Coleman and other top officials resigned last month.

The state parks department is funded by fee revenues and taxpayer dollars. Former state parks budget director Cheryl Taylor suggested park officials kept a hidden surplus because they feared lawmakers would slash the share of department funds that comes from taxpayers, according to documents reviewed by the paper.

At least two officials have said the practice of quickly burning down budgeted funds each June was widespread in California government, the paper said.

"Well, I've been around the fiscal world long enough to know that you don't leave unexpended authority if you can avoid it," said Michael Harris, who testified as part of the internal investigation and has since been fired as acting parks chief deputy director.

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