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State parks chief quits over $54 million mystery

5:06 PM, Jul 20, 2012   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, CA - After a year of drama over the possible closure of dozens of state parks due to California's budget crisis, the director of the agency has resigned after the revelation that almost $54 million in taxpayer funds may have been hidden from state lawmakers.

Parks director Ruth Coleman submitted her resignation to Gov. Jerry Brown resigned Friday morning.

"While I was unaware of the excessive balance in the State Park and Recreation Fund," wrote Coleman in her resignation letter, "I must accept full responsibility as a Director of a department for the veracity of budget documents issued by the department."

State officials say investigations are now underway by both the governor's budget advisers and by the state Department of Justice. It remains unclear just how many people knew about the surplus cash, and why it went unreported on official budget documents for as long as a decade.

The money sits in two separate accounts, state Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird told reporters Friday afternoon: some $20.4 million in a state parks general fund and almost $33.5 million in the off highway vehicle fund. Both accounts get money from park users.

"I'm obviously deeply disappointed," said Laird, a former Santa Cruz assemblymember and chair of the lower house's budget committee. Laird says the money could not have been spent without legislative appropriation.

Officials would only say the existence of the money was reported up the parks chain of command in the 48 hours leading up to Friday morning. However, the cash appears to have been reported in annual fiscal documents published by the state controller -- but somehow not pointed out to budget officials at the state Capitol.

Legislators who worked to keep open some 70 parks threatened with closure were, not surprisingly, angry.

"This discovery uncovers the ultimate betrayal of public trust," said state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, one of the authors of a Democratic plan this year to keep parks open.  "If one department can hoard $54 million for 12 years, who else is playing the same tricks of deceit and thievery?"

Officials say parks director Coleman's top deputy, Michael Harris, was dismissed from his job on Friday as the news broke.

It's also unclear how the information relates to the news earlier in the week of some $271,000 in vacation payments authorized by a former top parks official. But Secretary Laird told reporters Friday that an official brought in to "look at everything" helped uncover the mysterious cash.


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