SACRAMENTO (AP) — The irregularities at California's state parks department — and the director's resulting departure — blindsided the nonprofit groups that had been scrambling for donations to keep open 70 parks once doomed by funding shortages.
Their work to keep park gates open from Mendocino to San Diego past a July 1 closure deadline suddenly appeared meaningless when reports surfaced last week that the Department of Parks and Recreation had secret accounts holding more than $53 million.
"I've had four emergency board meetings this weekend and I'm a little tired," said Carolyn Schoff, president of the California League of Parks Associations, which has coordinated groups that raised millions of dollars trying to save threatened parks. "This has been an outrage for the public, and we feel outraged as well. Even if this money gets returned back, it's not resolving the crisis, and now the public trust has been betrayed."
The scandal erupted days after reports of secret parks department vacation time buyouts of more than $271,000. Ruth Coleman, director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, resigned Friday, and chief deputy Michael Harris was let go amid questions about the underreported funds.
Now, the California Attorney General's office and the Department of Finance are looking into the parks department's spending, though officials said they had not uncovered other unauthorized spending beyond the vacation buyout program.
It will be up to the attorney general's office to decide if there were any criminal or civil violations in the parks department, said Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jerry Brown. Shum Preston, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, declined comment beyond saying investigators will do a thorough review.
In addition to the parks department investigations, the Department of Finance 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.
"What makes this case so perplexing is if ever there was a department where you'd expect people would be looking under the seat cushions for every spare nickel and dime this would be the one," said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, chairman of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation. "You'd expect if there were funds to be found there, they would have been found. People were looking very carefully. I do think that now there's an obvious loss of trust here. Obvious and understandable."
Fundraising fallout from the scandal has not yet materialized, state officials said, noting they had not heard of any organizations withdrawing their financial support.
"We want to make sure we continue to work with the partners to restore trust in the department," said Clark Blanchard, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks. "We want to make sure it wasn't all for naught."
The department faced $22 million in budget cuts this year, meaning the $53 million that accumulated in two special funds over at least 12 years would cover more than two years of budget shortfalls, but would not assure the parks' long-term funding.
Sen. Doug La Malfa, R-Willows, vice chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, fears there could be similar hidden funds elsewhere in state government, said spokesman Kevin Eastman.
"Given the size of state government, the number of special funds, the number of agencies that have significant discretion over their spending — I would say the odds of probability would indicate this isn't unique," Eastman said.
Legislators planned to ask the state auditor to investigate the parks department, as well. Oversight committees in both the Senate and Assembly plan hearings on the parks department and the state's special funds soon after lawmakers return from their monthlong summer recess on Aug. 6.
"I think what's been reported is the tip of the iceberg," said Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa on the North Coast, where one-third of the parks on the closure list are located. "There are a lot of unanswered questions, and this is a very odd situation. People don't normally squirrel money away unless there's a reason."