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Park & Rec's secret stash

Editorial

Taxpayers deserve to know more about how millions were hidden from the public and state officials.

January 09, 2013
  • Ruth Coleman resigned as director of California state parks after the department's surplus funds came to light.
Ruth Coleman resigned as director of California state parks after the department's… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

Last summer, it was reported that the California Department of Parks and Recreation had been hiding more than $50 million even as the governor and Legislature were desperately slashing spending to address a multibillion-dollar budget gap. Today, the public knows a few more things about what happened and how. Yet what we still don't know is galling, particularly because the woman who was in charge refuses to speak about it.

A report released last week by the state attorney general's office makes it clear that not all of the money was being concealed; in fact, the bulk of the funds, more than $30 million in fees paid by off-road vehicle users, appears not to have been hidden at all. For 10 or so years, though, the existence of an additional $20 million was intentionally kept from both the public and state finance authorities, with the parks department reporting different totals to two agencies. Several top parks officials were implicated; one said the money was considered a "rainy day" fund.

But key questions remain unanswered. How did that $20 million accrue in the first place? It appears to have been unintentional, the report said, a result, at least in the beginning, of calculation errors. So should we chalk the whole thing up to incompetence? The report also doesn't address whether any crimes were committed.

The most disturbing question is whether parks Director Ruth Coleman, who led the department for a decade — almost the entire time that the funds were knowingly kept secret — was aware of what was happening under her stewardship. When she resigned in July, on the eve of the announcement about the hidden funds, Coleman said that she took full responsibility but that she knew nothing about the money. Yet when the state attorney general's office tried to interview the department's officials, current and former, Coleman was the only one to refuse, saying that on her attorneys' advice she would answer questions only in writing. The investigators rightly did not make an exception for her.

The state has little leverage with Coleman at this point; she can't be forced to resign again, and chances are that this is all the information the public will get. She owes the taxpayers better, though. The parks department had the public in a tizzy over the planned closure of dozens of parks. Generous and civic-minded people put in time and money to keep the state's main parks running, while all the time the department had $20 million stashed away, which raises the question of what kind of "rainy day" officials were waiting for. Two of Coleman's subordinates told investigators that they "believed" they had told their boss about the concealed funds but weren't sure whether or how much she understood. The public deserves an honest answer.

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