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PD Editorial: Unanswered questions of parks scandal

  • (LISA BENSON / Washington Post Writers Group)

Like a leaky faucet, the accounting scandal in the state parks department keeps dripping.

Drop by drop, information is trickling forth without slaking the thirst for the full story.

Beginning last summer, we learned that the department was effectively keeping two sets of books, hiding a hefty surplus even as officials threatened to close 70 parks.

Account balances were accurately reported to the state controller, but millions of dollars from entry fees paid by park patrons and visitor center sales receipts weren't reported to the Legislature or the state Department of Finance, perhaps as a hedge against budget cuts.

The parks director resigned, audits and investigations were launched, legislators held hearings, the agency promised to tighten its fiscal controls.

One of those investigations concluded that the money was deliberately hidden. Last week, a separate audit revealed that accounting problems in the parks department date back to at least 1999.

The same audit found that the department lacks data about the operating costs of its 278 parks and, in many cases, relied on old figures in deciding which ones to close.

Moreover, more than seven months after the hidden surpluses were revealed, we don't know who was responsible, who knew about the hidden funds and whether any of the money was misspent.

We don't know if it's a case of misfeasance or malfeasance. Was it incompetence, or was a crime committed?

On that question, Santa Rosa state Sen. Noreen Evans offered a blunt opinion during a legislative hearing this week.

“Fraud is a crime,” she declared, according to new accounts.

After some mixed signals, the state Justice Department now seems committed to determining whether anyone should be held criminally liable for the hidden funds.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Kamala Harris said an investigation was opened last month, shortly after Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully declined to press charges. At the time, Scully said she didn't know why the case was referred to her office, noting that the Justice Department traditionally has handled cases involving state agencies.

So far, no evidence of criminal intent has become public. There may not be any, but even if the investigation doesn't result in any charges, it will help restore public confidence in the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The department squandered a huge reservoir of goodwill with its mishandling of taxpayer money. It won't be easy to rebuild the public's trust. It may not happen at all. But this is certain: It will keep leaking away until there's a full public accounting, including an investigation of any illegal actions by current or former officials.

Let the plumbing begin.

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