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Parks agency had money problems years before scandal, audit finds

More than a decade before California's parks department became enveloped in financial scandal, state officials discovered accounting problems there, according to an audit released Thursday.

February 14, 2013|By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — More than a decade before California's parks department became enveloped in financial scandal, state officials discovered accounting problems there, according to an audit released Thursday.

Still, the department was able to continue hiding millions of dollars for years. Moreover, officials don't have a clear picture of how much each park costs — they track expenses by districts with multiple properties — and rely on outdated budget metrics, the review found.

Assemblywoman Beth Gaines (R-Rocklin), who requested the audit, said workers and volunteers "have been operating in the dark with just a random accounting system."

The department's scandal erupted last year with the discovery of a $54-million surplus in its budget at a time when the state was threatening to close dozens of parks. The revelation forced the parks director to resign and spurred calls for better oversight.

The state attorney general's office subsequently determined that $20.4 million of the hidden money had been deliberately squirreled away because parks officials feared that their budget was going to be cut.

The report released Thursday by the state auditor is the last of several examinations conducted in the wake of the scandal.

For years, the review says, parks officials sent accurate financial information to the state controller — who tracks cash flow — and different, smaller figures to the Department of Finance, the part of Gov. Jerry Brown's administration that plans the state budget.

"Such inconsistencies may have resulted in the Legislature and the governor using inaccurate financial information when making budgetary decisions concerning the department," the audit said.

Parks staffers were alerted to the accounting problems when finance officials noticed them as far back as 1999. It is unclear why they were not fixed.

"Neither current staff nor documentation we reviewed in the accounting and budget files at the department supplied an explanation regarding what originally caused the differences or why the issue was not resolved until the fall of 2012," the audit said.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance, also could not explain. He noted that leaders of state departments are now required to guarantee the accuracy of their budget figures or risk perjury charges.

In a written response to the latest audit, parks department officials said they would follow the auditor's recommendations to improve the way they track financial information.

chris.megerian@latimes.com

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