A private fundraising company hired to raise money for California state parks is accused of spending almost $1 million of a large donation on its own bills, an accusation it denies as legislators say they want more information.
In a letter dated Tuesday to legislators and obtained by News10, parks director Anthony Jackson told the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that a portion of a donation made by Coca-Cola to help fund parks operations was "diverted" by Pasadena-based Good Solutions Group, Inc. "to pay some of its creditors."
"As I have said since my arrival at state parks," writes director Anthony Jackson, "I am committed to ensuring transparency with regard to departmental operations, partnerships, and financial issues."
The money, estimated by Jackson as $918,263, was part of $2.6 million donation made by Coca-Cola in March 2009. The money was paid to Good Solutions Group, which was working for the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation. In turn, the foundation was to oversee the transfer of the money to be held in trust for parks restoration and preservation projects.
Some $1.6 million of the soft drink company's money has reportedly already gone to parks projects as intended. But the money in question was not paid on time, and a spokesman for the nonprofit parks foundation says that triggered questions to the Pasadena company. The money dispute began in January; state parks officials were informed in February. But only now is the Legislature getting the information.
"How can this happen, especially after we began asking questions about the off-books record keeping that they had before?" said state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield. Her comment refers to the 2011 saga in which state parks officials admitted that tens of millions of dollars were hidden away for as long as a decade. That incident led to the resignation of the then parks director, and remains under investigation by the state Attorney General's Office.
In a letter back to parks officials, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, says he wants more information from the nonprofit parks foundation on exactly what they found out, and what happens next.
Jerry Emery, a spokesperson for the foundation, says a formal legal agreement was signed with the company in question in March to secure a payment plan of the missing money.
Just before our story went on the air, a spokesperson for Good Solutions Group, Inc. asserted no money was misspent... at all.
"There has been no diversion of funds," says the statement, sent by spokesperson Meg Aldrich. "To receive funding, Parks must provide complete programming and accountability practices, which have not been demonstrated satisfactorily to date."
But that denial is rejected by both state officials and the nonprofit parks foundation.
"We must get to the bottom of it, and we must address it as quickly and feasibly as possible," said Richard Stapler of the California Natural Resources Agency.
The process of soliciting private donations to help fund the beleaguered state parks began in 2003, and the decade-old contract is up for reconsideration later this year. Some $4 million has been raised over time for everything from park restoration projects to the planting of trees.
But the new accusations could spar tough questions from lawmakers about continuing these kinds of outside ventures.
"Why aren't we being told, and why aren't people following the rules?" said Sen. Fuller.