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Attorney general opens new parks criminal inquiry

5:52 PM, Feb 20, 2013   |    comments
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Attorney General Kamala Harris has asked her criminal investigators to take their own look at last summer's revelation of hidden money inside the state parks department's budget.

A top deputy to Harris confirmed the investigation on Wednesday at a legislative hearing on the saga of $54 million in hidden cash, a saga that resulted in the departure of a number of top parks administrators.

The attorney general's office previously conducted a fact-finding investigation at the request of Gov. Jerry Brown's administration. Last month, Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully declined to file criminal charges, citing the fact that former parks officials were interviewed under the condition that those statements wouldn't lead to criminal charges.

Aides to Harris, however, say there's nothing to prevent those same officials from being contacted again as part of a formal criminal investigation.  There's been no timeline given on the inquiry.

The news came as legislators convened to bemoan the entire process that led to public criticism of parks, from a system that allowed some of the money to be squirreled away for as long as two decades to the existence of the secret even as the Legislature was wrestling with closing some 70 parks during the state budget crisis.

"You said that [the hiding of cash] was intentional," said state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, in her comments at the hearing to the deputy attorney general who oversaw the initial fact-finding process.  "All of those phrases, to me, reek of fraud."

Others worried that, even while summertime audits found no other instances of hidden cash, that the parks controversy reflected an unacceptable culture inside state government agencies about funding and transparency.

"I fear that parks isn't the only place," said state Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. "It's just the place where we've discovered it."

The parks controversy was the subject of at least four outside examinations -- the attorney general's inquiry as well as audits by the state Department of Finance, the state controller's office, and the state auditor.

Representatives from each entity told legislators at the joint Senate-Assembly hearing that there may be no way to ever fully uncover the origin of the hidden money effort.  Several speculated that the money was found in the 1990s as part of an annual reconciliation of expenses and revenues, and that at some point it was decided to keep the money in reserve.

But actually using the money would have required legislative action -- and, thus, disclosure.

"They weren't able to spend the money," said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Burbank.

State Auditor Elaine Howle told legislators it may have been that parks officials were hoping to quietly insert the money into their approved spending plans in a fiscal year in which revenues came up short.  That would have, in theory, masked the fact that the money was from a fiscal year earlier than the one in question.

Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Roseville, asked whether the attorney general's investigators intend to subpoena former parks director Ruth Coleman as part of their new effort.  Coleman has, to date, refused to speak to any investigators but denied in her resignation letter any knowledge of the hidden money.

Peter Southworth, the deputy who led the initial civil investigation for the attorney general, said he did not know whether Coleman would be contacted.

Meantime, the man picked by Governor Brown to lead the parks department in the aftermath of the saga told legislators his staff accepts all criticisms and recommendations.

"I am committed to transparency and accountability," said parks director Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson, "and regaining the trust of the governor, the Legislature, and very important, the people of the state of California."

UPDATE: This post has been changed to reflect the correct legislator that asked about a subpoena of former parks chief Coleman.  Apologies to Assemblywoman Gaines. --JM

News10/KXTV

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