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Secret buyouts at state parks HQ
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — A high-ranking official at the California Department of Parks and Recreation carried out a secret vacation buyout program last year for himself and other employees at the department's headquarters, just as the agency was planning to close 70 state parks due to budget cuts.

According to an internal audit, other documents and interviews with former employees, the unauthorized buyout program cost the state more than $271,000 — money that could have been used to keep several parks open, The Sacramento Bee reported.

In total, 56 employees took advantage of the buyout, mostly between May and July 2011, said Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department. The buyouts were only made available to employees at parks headquarters.

Under the program, some staffers at the headquarters were able to sell their unused vacation time back to the state, an offer that was not approved by the state Department of Human Resources, as required by state law, said Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the human resources department.

Because of the state's budget woes, no vacation buyouts have been approved by the agency since 2007, she said.

"They definitely did not authorize this," Stapler said.

The buyout requests were not submitted on official forms, but in some cases, were instead written on Post-It notes, apparently in an attempt to avoid leaving a paper trail, according to an internal parks department audit obtained by The Bee.

The audit also found that investigators were told that "the knowledge of the leave buyout plan was not to go out to anyone . and that the leave buyout plan was not to be referred to or discussed in email communications," The Bee reported.

The Natural Resources Agency would not release the name of the official responsible for carrying out the vacation buyouts, citing state laws that forbid disclosing personnel matters

Ted Jackson, a retired deputy director of operations at the parks department, and Brent Marshall, a spokesman for the State Park Peace Officers Management Association, identified the official as Manuel Thomas Lopez, who was deputy director of administrative services at the parks department.

One employee in the department was let go in October 2011, The Bee reported. On the same day, Lopez was removed from his deputy director position and re-assigned to a lower-paying job in another unit of the department, Stapler told The Bee.

Lopez resigned on May 16, Stapler said.

Lopez, a Placer County resident, did not respond to requests for comment left by The Sacramento Bee at his home. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach him were unsuccessful.

Officials were not seeking criminal charges against Lopez or any other employees, though disciplinary action may be taken, Stapler said.

"In the end, what they did determine was that because the employees who benefited from the cash outs had actually earned that leave, criminal charges could not be brought against those responsible," Stapler said.