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State Parks Chief Resigns – Department Found Sitting on $54 Million Surplus

| July 20, 2012
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Ruth Coleman, FORMER (as of today) Director Of California’s state park system

Ruth Coleman resigned this morning and her second in command has been fired. The Sacramento Bee first broke the story.

The inciting incident? The department has been sitting on nearly $54 million in surplus money for as long as 12 years. A rainy day fund, perhaps?

The moves come in the wake of a scandal, revealed by The Bee on Sunday, in which a deputy director at State Parks carried out a secret vacation buyout program for employees at headquarters last year. That buyout cost the state more than $271,000. The Bee submitted a Public Records Act request, started digging, and learned more gob smacking stuff.

John Laird, secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency, which oversees State Parks, told The Bee that investigations have been launched by both the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Finance to figure out how — and why — the Department of Parks and Recreation squirreled away so much money for so long.

“Ruth has stepped up and taken personal responsibility,” Laird said of Coleman, who is the longest-serving director in the 150-year history of the department. “It’s an incredibly troubling discovery.”

The surplus money consists of $20.3 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund, which are the two primary operating funds at the agency. This money was not reported to either Finance or the State Controller’s Office, in contrast to normal budgeting procedures.

Bear in mind that 70 state parks were set to close for the want of $22 million dollars over two fiscal years. A reminder: in late June, just ahead of the July 1st “deadline,” the Department announced that 65 parks either have a deal, or one in the works, to avoid closure. The Governor also signed legislation that provides some money to give a little extra time to hash out those couple dozen deals still in the work.

hdpublicplaces-modMost of those closures did not happen because of near-heroic fundraising from non-profits across the state, but the money could also have prevented cutbacks in hours, staffing and services system wide.

In an interview Friday morning with The Bee, Laird said the discovered funds are “one-time” money and it will be up to the Legislature to decide how to use it.

Update 12 p.m.: Paul Rogers covering the story

Twitter / PaulRogersSJMN: CA State Parks Director Ruth …

Update 12:15 p.m. Brown appoints interim director, launches investigation

The California Natural Resources Agency says Gov. Brown has appointed Undersecretary Janelle Beland as acting interim director of Parks. Also from the agency:

At the request of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., the state Attorney General’s Office is investigating the circumstances surrounding significant budgetary irregularities at the California Department of Parks and Recreation dating back to at least 2000. Governor Brown has also directed the state Department of Finance to conduct a comprehensive audit of Parks’ fiscal controls and the California Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird to conduct a sweeping review of Parks’ management.

A preliminary investigation into Parks’ finances has revealed that for at least 12 years the department underreported tens of millions of dollars to the state Department of Finance. As a result, the Department of Finance was not aware that the State Parks and Recreation Fund and the Off Highway Vehicle Fund held $20,378,000 and $33,492,000 respectively above their official, most recently reported balances. The underreporting occurred over the course of two prior gubernatorial administrations.

Update 12:45 p.m. Local park fundraisers speak out

Bob Patrie, who helped line up more than $1 millon in funding to keep Henry W. Coe State Park in Morgan Hill open, had this to say via email:

“These scandals within DPR won’t make it any easier for us to raise additional donations to fund an endowment. I’m very disappointed with DPR leadership.”

And from Bob Berman, VP of the Benicia State Parks Association:

“Well, needless to say I am both shocked and disappointed. If it turns out that this undercounting is true and deliberate, this likely will damage support and sympathy for state parks from members of the State Legislature and the public. This is especially true since so many of the 70 targeted State Parks have not closed because so many nonprofits (such as the Benicia State Parks Association) and their volunteers have stepped forward to keep the parks open.”

Update 12:56 p.m. Jared Huffman comments

San Rafael State Assemblyman Jared Huffman tells KQED’s Scott Shafer, the situation is “extremely troubling.”

“It’s very distressing. I think like everyone, when you hear this news, it just sort of makes you sick frankly, cause this is not way to manage the public’s money.”

But he said he applauds Gov. Brown’s leadership in immediately involving the Attorney General’s office.

Update 1:50 p.m. Coleman blames deputy

Ruth Coleman spoke to the Mercury News’ Paul Rogers, and she’s blaming the scandal on her former deputy, Manuel Lopez:

On Sunday, the Sacramento Bee reported that former deputy parks director Manuel Lopez had approved $271,000 in vacation buy backs for parks staffers without authorization. Coleman demoted Lopez in October and in May, he resigned under pressure.

On Friday, Coleman said that the $54 million in unreported money had been concealed by Lopez.

“It was part of his job,” she said. “He did not elevate it to my attention.”

She said she learned of the problem when Lopez’s successor, Aaron Robertson, uncovered it as part of an investigation. Full article

Update 2:31 p.m. Interview with Coleman

The California Report’s Scott Shafer talked to Ruth Coleman this afternoon. Coleman said again she didn’t know about the extra balance of funds. “Once I found out, we took action and we’re cleaning it up, and the administration is going to continue doing that, and I respect their ability to do so.”

She said she takes responsibility for the actions of her subordinates, and that she offered her resignation to the governor last night. “I just think that right now, the right [thing] is for me to move on, and take this one for the team.”

Coleman said the money isn’t going to solve the park’s ongoing financial issues, but it will help. “It’s important to remember that these funds are still there. They have not been taken from the taxpayers. They’re safe. They can be appropriated subject to the legislature. They should have been day-lighted to finance, but now that they are I think that it’s important to move on.”

When asked what her former underling, Lopez, who she says is responsible for concealing the funds, may have been thinking, Coleman said, “It’s so hard to get inside somebody else’s head.” She said that she had heard from another person that Lopez’ argument for hiding the funds was that they would have been appropriated for the state general fund anyway, but that the comment was only hearsay.

Update 3:18 p.m. Interview with Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips

Governor Jerry Brown, she says, “has been signaling his disinterest with an interim person in the top post” of the Parks Department, referring to the fact Coleman is a holdover from the Schwarzenegger Administration. Phillips says the Governor needs to place somebody he trusts “inside the horseshoe,” the California Highway Patrol-guarded section of the Capitol that houses the governor’s offices.

And yes, the Sierra Club has a list of suggestions for the hiring committee. As well as a list of “the questions he needs to ask” candidates. “Trust us, Jerry! Trust us!” Phillips says, adding the problems in the Parks Department are “30 years old.”

What 30 year old problems? Systemic under-funding by the state; a massive deferred maintenance project pile up; as well as outmoded and inflexible operating procedures (Coleman referenced some of them herself in a recent Forum segment).

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About the Author ()

Rachael Myrow hosts the California Report for KQED. Over 17 years in public radio, she's worked for Marketplace and KPCC, filed for NPR and The World, and developed a sizable tea collection that's become the envy of the KQED newsroom. She specializes in politics, economics and history in California - but for emotional balance, she also covers food and its relationship to health and happiness. Reach Rachael Myrow at rmyrow@kqed.org.
  • Uncle Frenchfrie

    Bad Chief, Bad.

  • Oldskewl

    What the funk is happening to our political leadership? Our elected officials seem to think that they are above the law and they are unaccountable to, “We the people” who are their employers. Their greed knows no bounds. This is a good news bad news find. Good news is that parks and park employees may be safe. However, those that took the secret “vacation” buyout should all be fired and the money returned. Justice should be swift and accurate!

    • http://twitter.com/colinmarchale Colin Hale

      Coleman wasn’t an elected official.

    • http://twitter.com/sfmikee jj

      This woman was not elected, but a Schwarzenegger appointee, as the article states.

      • whybotherwithfacts

        I am not avocating one way or the other, but the article is wrong, Ruth was not appointed by Schwarzenegger, she was an interim appointee when Rusty Arias (ala Gary Conduit) left to run (but didnt) for a congressional seat. She then was left in place by Gray Davis (Total [election] Recall)
        Maybe I should be a reporter?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tax-Ifornia/100003876588866 Tax Ifornia

      nothing new
      they have been at things like this for years,,, they just got caught now because all the depts are looking for money to survive,, they are “eating their young”..
      govt gone wild

  • http://www.facebook.com/Mayagrafix Rafael Cervera

    Probably a Republican operative. They are sneaky in that kind of way, implanting their ilk in selected government areas they dislike and proceed to destroy from with in. Text book censorship by school administrators comes to mind.

  • Chaz

    With that kind of money, they almost could have hired Marissa Mayer to fix things.

  • Hal from San Mateo

    I can’t help wondering if Coleman actually knew about it or is just being “a good soldier” and falling on her sword. Very sad all the way around, because it damages the credibility of those who have seriously been trying to help state entities survive a very difficult time. Bob Patrie probably speaks for many.

    • christine mann

      Of course she knew!!! She was being paid off to keep that money hidden.

  • D. McGauley

    WHAT? Seriously? And our family PURCHASED a memorial picnic table for our parents and had it placed at Schoolhouse Beach on the Sonoma Coast. But they CLOSE that beach 9 months out of the year so we can’t even visit. This is total BS! We are all out there fundraising ourselves to death to keep the state parks open and now THIS??? 54 million sure would have helped keep the parks open. What the hell were they “sitting” on all that money for? And not reporting it? WHAT? I seriously cannot comprehend this.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tax-Ifornia/100003876588866 Tax Ifornia

      vacation,pensions and parties
      screw the taxpayers fund
      they need to go to jail

  • P. Leia

    Kudos the Sacramento Bee for breaking the story! We desperately need more media outlets to go back to doing this type of very important investigative reporting, instead of pandering to their corporate overlords.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jackieberry826 Jackie Berry

    CROOKS! Who can yiu trust these days. They ALL steal money!

  • Anonymous

    Wait. They’re being punished for NOT spending money?

    • Anonymous

      NO! They hid the money from the rest of the state. They lied. Why would they lie and hide money, allowing parks to be closed and people lose their jobs unless their intention was to steal it? Cole is corrupt and/or incompetent.

      • Anonymous

        But they didn’t steal it, so where’s the crime here? There will be no conviction for theft…unless there’s an actual theft.

        • Jimmeh

          It’s like a cashier keeping a cash stash in a hidey-hole somewhere inside the store… Technically they haven’t taken the money for themselves, but what was the intention? Had they just not gotten around to stealing it yet? It’s like a crime that was 75% executed.

        • Anonymous

          You are not allowed to HIDE public monies and KEEP THEM away from their designated uses. People lost their jobs and the parks endangered because one or more people LIED and PREVENTED the money’s being used for its designated purpose. As someone else said – this was a theft in process.

      • christine mann

        so they could feign bankruptcy and give state parks to private interests!!

      • christine mann

        see Candlestick park. 23 acres given to housing developer to build 10,000 homes in exchange for a few mill to run the park.

    • Anonymous

      T ypos are because.I’m upset – sorry -

  • http://www.facebook.com/bmpurifoy Brandon Purifoy

    Does this mean all parks will remain open? I’m sort of confused. Is the money still there?

    • T.O.D

      Did you read the entire article? “It’s important to remember that these funds are still there. They have not been taken from the taxpayers. They’re safe.”

    • Rachael Myrow

      Hi Brandon. There is no indication this will cause any of the 70 parks to close. As it is now, even those that are barely open are still not technically closed. If anything, this brouhaha buys local park activists more time as the focus turns to agency headquarters in Sacramento. As noted above, there will be an audit and a management review.

  • T.O.D

    I’m sure our lovely legislature will find some way to use this money for something other than our state parks.
    Why would they be concealing the money if they (the few people in the know) didn’t have plans to embezzle some or all of it?

    • Anonymous

      But they didn’t steal it. It’s still there. So there are NO dead bodies by the side of the road. What are you going to convict them of? Thought crimes? Incompetence?

  • http://twitter.com/yuzu kayo

    That money is just going to be grabbed by the legislature to bring down the state’s deficit. It wouldn’t have gone to the parks anyway.

  • Jam Wong

    A surplus is better than a deficit. Is sounds to me it’s not really Coleman’s fault. Why should she have to step down or take the blame? From the article it appears Lopez was the one who concealed it and it remained hidden from people including her. The 271k vacation buy backs organized by Lopez does not sound like a huge deal to me. To me this should be more like good news and maybe we can take care of our state parks again.

    • christine mann

      are you joking? She clearly set the money aside so the parks could feign bankruptcy and give the land away as they did in SF or enter into pub/priv partnerships that compromise the integrity of our parks. ANY of the “deals” that were struck to save parks that compromise their integrity should be null and void as they were based on fraud.

  • E Christina Dabis

    And, what does ELAINE M. HOWLE, CPA, our State Auditor have to say about this? What did the annual audits on this department unveil? Or, are these funds squirreled away in the Park’s budget to be hidden from other uses?

  • Ron

    Sierra club! I wouldn’t trust you with anything…. You and the Humane society have agendas and scandals of your own! Clean your closets before offering to clean others.

    • christine mann

      Oh yeah do not trust the Sierra Club. They are PARTNERED w/ the developers aka Building Industry. Thats why the only stuff they work on is in the ocean like saving sharks and turtles. I mean I love sea creatures but you expect Sierra Club to protect the land. They helped pass SB375 w/ the building industry which killed the env quality act.

  • Elk_hunter77

    Hopefully, State Parks will create an endowment with this money to try to create some sustainability in their financial future. But, I fear our insane legislature will take it cover the deficit or continue to spend it on other pet projects.

  • Vote no on all Taxes

    She’ll leave and receive her nice fat pension. Vote no on any taxes. They are all crooks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tax-Ifornia/100003876588866 Tax Ifornia

      ya she took one for the team
      her big fat team she calls her pension.. i am sure she will find a nice job with lennar

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.risner Richard Risner

    Just the “tip of the iceberg”….I see a lot of support for her but as someone that worked for the system under her direction for nearly 10 years there was no doubt that she knew exactly that there was a $54mil slush fund for her “legacy” projects that she wanted to be built. She constantaly promoted outsourcing for “frindly” private big name designer firms that ate departmental budgets and caused a strain on park in house design staff and basic operations.
    When I resigned from the State Parks in 2007 I did so because I was disgusted by the leadership and bad management. I witnessed the innappropriate manner that the Director allocated and mismanaged funds for projects. It still continues in the system today and we tax payers will continue suffer from it.
    The State Park System should hold dearly the publics trust for the protection of our beautiful California openspace (Parks), but most importantly the funds provided by its people.
    I do hope there will be a deeper investigation into the department and its “Leaders”.
    “It is time to clean house!”

    • christine mann

      Wow Richard you should contact the media w/ this info!!! this is important!

      • http://www.facebook.com/richard.risner Richard Risner

        Really?…here’s the thing when you are a Government “worker”. You bring up many troubling issues with your direct Supervisor/Manager they in-turn report it to their Department/Division Chief (a person in direct contact with the Director, Ruth Coleman) then they all decide you are not a team player. When you are “not a team player” you are put under a microscope, your job/career/life becomes miserable. This will force you to resign. It happened to me.
        When you are labeled as “not a team player” no one is safe. It also happened to the best Ca. Parks Director of Operations, Ted Jackson, while he was under the microscope of Ruth.
        Blowing the whistle by bringing it to the attention of the media or a watchdog group would only make your job/career/life even more miserable. Sadly, it is sometimes better to just cut & run.

      • http://www.facebook.com/richard.risner Richard Risner

        The former Director knows how to play the game, she came from a politics background as a former lobbist. All politics, all the time. Whatever gains her the most “whatever/fill-in-the-blank” was her goal. Like many of the cronies under her, there never was any true interest in doing “Service” for the people of California it was more about building their resumes for something bigger and better down the road. Well here’s your “legacy” now Ruth, enjoy.

  • christine mann

    Too bad we sold off state park lands to housing developers already to fill the gap.

  • christine mann

    See what happened at Candlestick park– 23 acres of land sold off to Lennar Homebuilders to build 10,000 housing units on the land. In exchange for ceding the land they will receive a few million to pay to care for the park. This deal and others should be null and void since they were made based on fraudulant information. People should livid! They were obviously presenting this as a crisis so they could enter into pub/priv partnerships in order to give the land away.

  • christine mann

    and someone needs to investigate her personal finances. Does she have any money in Delaware LLcs which are anonymous shell corps that companies can use to bribe people. Delaware LLcs are how the housing developers who run this state are paying off politicians to give them state money for their projects. ironically Lennar homes provided the 40 million to Candlestick which was tax money it received from the state for redevelopment. it redeveloped our “blighted” park into housing. That is such an outrageous use of state funds and the money should be returned immediately.

    • whybotherwithfacts

      Now I just think you are coo-coo

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tax-Ifornia/100003876588866 Tax Ifornia

        the only Coo-Coo bird here is the Govt. and the ponzi scheme they call budgets

  • christine mann

    BTW this is precisely why we need to vote NO on any tax hikes. The only reason this money wasnt stolen was because its specifically set aside for parks and cant go into slush fund. We need a ballot measure that will end general funds and ensure money is allocated to things we need like parks, libraries and schools so the developers and Walmart cant steal it as theyve done for the last 50 years. redevelopment syphoned 6 BILLION dollars a year and it is dead in name only. Its time to get the developers out of office. Guarantee this girl was paid off by them to feign bankruptcy in order to create this “crisis”.

  • Anonymous

    The SPRF, affectionately known as the Smurf fund, was frozen by Jerry Brown. The ORV money is also known by all and it’s financial status. So much Sacramento horse crap.

  • CK

    Note that one suggestion was Lopez was hiding the money because he thought the legislature would just take it. Likely? For sure! Then it would have just been further squandered by that bunch of wasted flesh. Wish there was some way they could keep it locked into the parks!

  • Paul

    JAIL RUTH COLEMAN!

  • Greg Farrell

    If you knew Ruth Coleman, you would say it’s a sad day in California. Her scruples, integrity, leadership, and management capabilities far outweigh the need for her to resign under this “hidden” incident. She is not only a good soldier, but a caring individual who is interested in achieving the goals of any organization she works for, and is interested in honestly carrying out those orders. To all the legislators who are eager to jump on the band wagon to blame her, I would suggest looking within your arena of responsiblities before casting judgement on one of the most decent leaders in California. My deepest sympathies go to Ruth and her family. She will truly be missed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tax-Ifornia/100003876588866 Tax Ifornia

      @gREG,
      I am sure they all knew about it… Time will tell
      Govt gone wild

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tax-Ifornia/100003876588866 Tax Ifornia

    they need to go to jail
    damn crooks

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tax-Ifornia/100003876588866 Tax Ifornia

    I WONDER HOW MUCH THE FUND REALLY WAS AND HOW MUCH THEY TOOK FOR SO CALLED VACATION FUNDS OVER THE YEARS.. i AM SURE THEY ALL KNEW WHAT WAS HAPPENEING..
    GOVT GONE WILD

  • D. White

    I agree.. Kudos to the Sacramento Bee. I understand there are 100s of similar accounts in different departments within the state. How many have $$ stashed away with no system of tracking and holding people accountable. The Bee should expand this type of reporting for other departments. We shouldn’t give the state one more dime of taxes… Vote NO on everything TAX related.

  • Earth 1st

    Great investigation from the Sac Bee…I mean all these government officials are just so crooked, its unbelievable!!!!!!
    A nation of sheep creates a government of wolves!