Hidden parks money was exposed after years of silence
When Aaron Robertson took an administrative job at the California parks department in January 2012, he found a culture of secrecy and fear.
“There was a great deal of distrust," he said. "People felt somewhat fearful of coming forward with information."
Robertson, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps reserves, also found something else –- nearly $54 million stashed in two accounts. His discovery led to an accounting scandal and the ouster of multiple high-ranking parks officials.
A new report on the episode was released Friday, detailing a months-long investigation by the state attorney general’s office. The examination found that much of the hidden surplus was the result of innocent accounting mistakes and discrepancies. However, about $20 million had been intentionally concealed by parks officials.
Interviews conducted during the investigation showed parks officials were treating the money as a nest egg. They feared more budget cuts if state number crunchers knew there was extra funding, so they didn't report it to the Department of Finance.
Other interviews showed parks leaders had no interest in correcting the errors. The report said "parks employees consistently requested, without success, that their superiors address the issue."
"So at that point, I realized I wasn't a really good match for Parks and Recreation and started my plans to leave," he said.
Coleman resigned when the scandal broke last summer and has denied knowing about the hidden money. The report said it's still unclear whether she was aware of the funds. She declined to be interviewed for the investigation.
Last year, Robertson "recognized his duty" to report the issue outside the department, the report said.
"Until then, no one had been willing to report the matter beyond their supervisors," the report said. "Instead, people have consistently followed the directions of those above them that the fund balance disparity would not be disclosed to the" Department of Finance.
A new parks director, retired Marine Major Gen. Anthony Jackson, was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to replace Coleman in November. Robertson was promoted to become his deputy.
-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento
Photo: Ruth Coleman, who was ousted as state parks director last summer, at a Sacramento news conference in 2011. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press