Former Park Official Says Boss Knew About $53M

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    State Parks director Ruth Coleman speaks at the grand opening of the Annenberg Community Beach House at Santa Monica State Beach on April 25, 2009

    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.
     
           A separate off-highway vehicle fund held another $33.5 million more than had been reported to the state Department of Finance.
     
           Coleman resigned Friday over the situation and accepted overall responsibility but said in a telephone interview Thursday that she had been unaware of the surplus.
     
           ``I don't recall being briefed orally or in writing regarding unreported surplus funds,'' she told The Associated Press. ``Had I been aware of these resources, I would have sought to deploy them to keep parks open.''
     
           Lopez did not return repeated telephone messages left Thursday by The Associated Press. Sacramento attorney Marc A. Caraska, who is representing Lopez in a personal bankruptcy case, also did not return repeated messages.
     
           Nonprofit groups and local governments helped raise money and in some cases assumed responsibility to keep the 70 state parks operating past a July 1 closure deadline. 
     
           The attorney general and state finance officials are investigating the scandal. The attorney general's office set up a tip line and email address Thursday for anyone with information that would help the investigation: 916-324-7561, or ParksInvestigation(at)doj.ca.gov.
     
           State lawmakers also are promising oversight hearings and plan to seek an independent audit of the department. The state Finance Department also is reviewing all the state's 560 special funds to make sure the actual fund balances match what has been reported to the administration and the state controller.
     
           State officials previously said the parks department had maintained the unreported money in its accounts for at least 12 years, including the entire time Coleman was director. She served under three governors and said in her resignation letter that she was ``personally appalled'' to learn of the hidden money.
     
           Coleman said Thursday it was Lopez's responsibility to tell her about the surplus funds, and he did not.
     
           Lopez said he learned of the unreported money from the department's previous budget official when Lopez took over that responsibility in the spring of 2005. The department treated the $20 million in the parks fund as an emergency account that could be tapped if natural disaster caused a number of parks to close, he said.
     
           ``That was the rationale that was given to me _ by a number of people on the executive staff,'' Lopez told the newspaper. ``There had to be some level of a safety net.''
     
           The unreported fund surfaced after reports that Lopez also administered an unauthorized program to buy out unused vacation time for 56 employees, costing taxpayers more than $271,000. He was demoted in October and resigned in May.
     
           Lopez told the Bee he made the decision to buy out unused vacation time, including his own. Records show he received at least $20,600 from the buyout.
     
           ``I was not aware that I was violating any law or policy at that point in time,'' he told the newspaper, though he said he is in the process of hiring an attorney.
     
           Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Agency that oversees the parks department, declined comment Thursday.
     
           ``We can't speculate about these allegations, pending the attorney general's investigation,'' he told The Associated Press.
     
           Lopez and other parks officials also are being sued by a personnel official he fired last year. The former employee alleges she was a victim of sexual harassment.
     
           Stapler also said he could not comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation. Lopez did not comment on the lawsuit in his interview with the Bee.
     
           Last week, Lopez and his wife, a school teacher, filed for personal bankruptcy. Lopez listed himself as unemployed.
     
           Gov. Jerry Brown made light of the parks scandal in his first comments on the matter Wednesday, saying during an unrelated news conference that it was the first time in his experience when government was criticized for saving money.