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California parks officials deliberately hid money, report says

January 4, 2013 |  1:32 pm

Park closure

Fear of embarrassment and budget cuts led California parks officials to intentionally conceal millions of dollars in a department account, according to an investigation conducted by the state attorney general's office.

The report, released Friday, is the most detailed official narrative yet regarding the root of the accounting scandal at the parks department.

The scandal broke last summer when it was revealed that the parks department had a hidden surplus of nearly $54 million even though it was threatening to close dozens of facilities.

About $20 million was found in an account where entrance fees and other revenues are deposited. Accounting discrepancies appeared to begin innocently more than a decade ago, leading to fluctuating reports on how much money was in the fund, investigators said.

But in 2002, when the problems were identified, parks officials made a "conscious and deliberate" decision not to reveal the money to officials at the Department of Finance, which plans the state budget.

Multiple high-ranking officials were involved, including the former chief deputy director, Michael Harris, who later lost his job over the scandal. However, the report said it remained unclear whether ousted director Ruth Coleman knew about the accounting problems. Coleman declined to be interviewed for the investigation.

Parks officials didn't report the money because they were concerned that their already reduced budget would be cut even further if the state's number-crunchers knew they had more money in a department account, the report said. Interviews conducted by investigators also showed that officials feared embarrassment if the accounting problems were revealed.

"Throughout this period of intentional non-disclosure, some parks employees consistently requested, without success, that their superiors address the issue," the report said. It wasn't until a new deputy director was installed at the parks department in January 2012 was the issue reported.

Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, said officials are still determining whether the investigation will result in criminal charges.

John Laird, the resources secretary, said new policies and staff are in place to prevent similar problems in the future.

"It is now clear that this is a problem that could have been fixed by a simple correction years ago, instead of being unaddressed for so long that it turned into a significant blow to public trust in government," Laird, who oversees the parks department, said in a statement.

The rest of the $54 million was found in an account for off-road vehicle parks. Investigators said accounting discrepancies there appeared to be unintentional, and the result of various bookkeeping problems involving loans and tax changes.

For example, a 2010 modification to the gas tax mistakenly pumped millions of excess dollars into the off-road account, the report said. That problem has been fixed and the money has been reallocated, according to the Department of Finance.

The investigation from the attorney general's office is the third review of the parks department in recent weeks. One more report, from the state auditor, is expected to be released.

ALSO:

Ex-Marine general takes helm of state parks agency

Gas tax change may have caused part of parks surplus, analyst says

Parks department audit finds two decades of accounting discrepancies

-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento

twitter.com/chrismegerian

Photo: A parks official closes the gate at Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in San Bernardino County. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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