Ruth Coleman, the controversial State Parks Director, resigned this morning as a preliminary investigation into Department of Parks and Recreation finances revealed that the agency was sitting on $54 million in surplus funds at a time when state parks were faced with closure.
For at least 12 years, the Department underreported tens of millions of dollars to the state Department of Finance, according to a statement from the Natural Resources Agency.
"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," the agency stated.
The scandal has prompted an outpouring of outrage by grassroots environmentalists, fishermen, public officials and advocates for openness and transparency in government.
The state Attorney General's Office, at the request of Governor Jerry Brown, 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.
Laird claimed it is unclear why the funds were unreported, but he vowed to "get to the bottom" of the scandal.
"I welcome Governor Brown's swift action to address these hidden assets," said Secretary Laird. "We will get to the bottom of this situation and work with the Attorney General, the Legislature and the Department of Finance to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. We will also work with the Legislature to see how this money can be used to mitigate park closures."
Brown today accepted the resignation of Coleman. The department's acting chief deputy, Michael Harris, was also removed from his position.
"While I was unaware of the excessive balance in the State Park and Recreation Fund, I must accept full responsibility as a Director of a department for the veracity of budget documents issued by the department," said Coleman in her resignation letter.
Brown has appointed California Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland as acting interim director of Parks. "The Governor has directed her to promptly report to him and Secretary Laird on further actions that should be taken to ensure that the Department is being managed with honesty, accountability and transparency," according to the agency.
State Senator Evans Calls for Audit of All State Departments
Advocates for State Parks and the public trust were appalled and angered over the $54 million State Parks Scandal.
"This discovery uncovers the ultimate betrayal of public trust," said Senator Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa). "It is inconceivable to me how anyone with an ounce of morals could outright steal $54 million of taxpayer money intended for our historic public lands."
"They are responsible for the decay at every park in the state that suffers from maintenance that has gone undone, the job losses across the state from shortened park hours or partial closures, the dollars lost by local communities and businesses that depended on the tourism dollars parks bring in to the state," Evans said.
"In fact, I'd say, they're largely responsible for the budget cuts we've made as healthcare for the needy has been slashed, school budgets have been decimated and the majority of the people in the state have suffered from reductions to services they depend on for their health and well-being while these selfish bureaucrats stashed away money for their personal gain," noted Evans.
"But, the real question now is, where does it end? If one department can hoard $54 million for 12 years, who else is playing the same tricks of deceit and thievery? I call upon the Governor to conduct an administration-wide audit of every department and every division to be made available, line by line, to the public," said Evans.
"It's no wonder to me that voters have lost their faith in their elected officials," Evans continued. "Acts like these bring shame upon those of us who hold the public trust in the highest regard and take pride and honor in our public service. Public theft should carry special penalties in a court of law. I intend to introduce a bill when session reconvenes to do just that."
"Lastly, I request the reopening of all parks and beaches in Parks District 1, where the majority of these closures have taken place. Further, I call upon the Administration to immediately submit plans to the Legislature for the reopening of every park that has been closed or incurred shorter operating hours. The people of California deserve nothing less," she concluded.
State Senator Noreen Evans represents the Second Senatorial District, including all or portions of the Counties of Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Solano, and Sonoma. Senator Evans Chairs the Legislative Women's Caucus and the Committee on Judiciary.
The hidden assets at the center of the scandal were brought to light when new Parks fiscal staff began an internal review of accounts, following a separate investigation by the Attorney General over unauthorized vacation buy-outs.
"Today's revelation that the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) had two hidden funds totaling over $50 million is both disturbing and appalling," said Elizabeth Goldstein, President of the California State Parks Foundation. "We are frustrated to learn about these hidden funds during the present state park crisis. We are angry on behalf of our members, our donors, our partners, but most of importantly on behalf of the people of California. Californians have a right to expect honesty from the government systems that serve us and, in this case, the parks department let us all down."
"We are calling on the next director to work diligently to not only correct this inexcusable situation but also to achieve a culture of openness and transparency that will prevent this from happening in the future," said Goldstein.
"The Natural Resources Agency and all of its Departments needs to be turned upside down, shaken out and those responsible for theft of the public trust need to go to jail," said David Gurney, Chair of the Ocean Protection Coalition of Mendocino County.
Scandal is No Surprise to Public Trust Advocates
The $54 million State Parks Scandal is no surprise to those who care about fish, the public trust and the environment in California, since Governor Jerry Brown and Natural Resources Secretary John Laird have dedicated themselves to forging ahead with many of the most odious and corrupt environmental policies of the Schwarzenegger administration.
First, Brown and Laird have fast-tracked the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to build a peripheral canal or tunnel to export more Delta water to corporate agribusiness and southern California. The construction of the tunnel will likely hasten the extinction of Central Valley chinook salmon, steelhead, Delta smelt and other fish species. The Brown and Obama administrations are expected to unveil their tunnel proposal on or near July 25.
Second, Brown and Laird presided over a record fish kill and record water exports at the Delta pumps in 2011. The DFG released a report documenting the "salvage" of tens of millions of fish including 42 species in the state and federal water export pumping facilities in the South Delta in 2011.
A total of 11,817,051 fish of all species were "salvaged" in the state and federal pumps in 2011, according to the report published in the Interagency Ecological Program for the San Francisco Estuary Newsletter, Fall/Winter 2012 edition.
The splittail "salvage" number was a total of 8,986,089 fish, a new salvage record for the species, eclipsing even the massacres of splittail that occurred under Schwarzenegger. As alarming as this number is, the "salvage" numbers greatly underestimate the actual amount of fish lost in the Delta death pumps.
Third, Brown and Laird have continued Schwarzenegger's privately funded Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to create so-called "marine protected areas" in California waters. These fake "marine protected areas," created under the oversight of a big oil lobbyist, real estate developer, agribusiness operative and other corporate hacks, fail to protect the ocean from oil spills and drilling, pollution, wind and wave energy projects, military and seismic testing, corporate aquaculture and all other human impacts on the ocean other than fishing and gathering.
In one of the most overt conflicts of interest in California history, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force that developed the "marine protected areas" that went into effect in Southern California on January 1. Reheis-Boyd, a relentless advocate for offshore oil drilling, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the Keystone XL Pipeline and the weakening of environmental laws, served on the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Forces for the Central Coast, North Central Coast and North Coast.
I concur with Evans' call for the Governor to conduct an administration-wide audit of every department and every division to be made available, line by line, to the public. Special attention should be given to complete and thorough investigations of the controversial Marine Life Protection Act Initiative and Bay Delta Conservation Plan, processes that are both ridden with numerous conflicts of interest.