SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The director of California's state parks resigned and a deputy was fired Friday after officials learned the department sat on nearly $54 million in surplus money for years while parks were threatened with closure over budget cuts.
Ruth Coleman, director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, stepped down, and chief deputy Michael Harris was let go amid questions about the underreported funds that date back 12 years, announced state Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird, whose agency oversees the parks department.
Laird said it's not clear why the account balances weren't properly reported and many questions remained. So far, there's no indication the money was stolen, but Laird said the investigation is ongoing. He declined to speculate if it was an accounting mistake or if there was intentional wrongdoing.
"I'm obviously deeply disappointed and feel truly sorry (for) everybody that was involved," Laird said. "It's my take that the challenges to parks are so much greater than this and we still have to meet them. We're going to do our best and move ahead."
Coleman, who joined the department in 1999 and served under three governors, said she was unaware of the surplus but accepted responsibility for the accounting problem.
"I am personally appalled to learn that our documents were not accurate," she wrote in her resignation letter released by the governor's office.
Gov. Jerry Brown accepted Coleman's resignation and appointed California Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland as acting interim director of the department.
The shake-up comes at a time when state lawmakers and park advocates have been trying to find ways to keep most parks open despite ongoing budget cuts. Last month, park officials announced most of the 70 state parks once slated to close would remain open.
The Sacramento Bee first reported Coleman's resignation after inquiring about the possibility of a surplus in connection to a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters. The newspaper reported Sunday that a high-ranking official acted without authorization in allowing dozens of employees to sell unused vacation time back to the state.
Officials estimated the scheme cost taxpayers more than $271,000.
State officials said the "hidden assets" that prompted the investigation were found by a new park fiscal staff member, Aaron Robertson, while the attorney general's office was looking into the unauthorized vacation buyouts.
The administration said it disclosed the accounting problem within 48 hours of the discovery.
Friday's announcement sparked outrage from state lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa, who crafted legislation allocating new funds for the beleaguered parks system in the face of $22 million in budget cuts.
"This discovery uncovers the ultimate betrayal of public trust," Evans said in a statement. "If one department can hoard $54 million for 12 years, who else is playing the same tricks of deceit and thievery?"
Separately, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg called for an oversight hearing.
State officials said the attorney general's office is investigating and finance officials will conduct a full audit of the department. Deputy Finance Director Michael Cohen said the administration will move to make sure the same problem isn't happening in other special funds.
A preliminary investigation shows the parks department underreported two funds as far back as 2000.
The state parks and recreation fund, which is generated from park fees and rentals, held $20.4 million more than was reported. The off-highway vehicle fund, which is generated from registering ATVs and similar types of vehicles, held $33.5 million more than reported.
Laird said it's difficult to say whether the money would have prevented the state from targeting dozens of parks for closure.
"It would be hard to assess. Of course it would assist," he said.
California operates 279 parks, which include famous beaches to redwood forests. The parks that were at risk of closure got a reprieve last month after the governor signed Evans' bill allocating new funds for the next year. The state has also reached agreements with nonprofits, local governments and others to keep 40 parks open at least for a few years.
Jerry Emory, communications director for the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money to benefit state parks, said the organization was stunned by the accounting problem.
However, he said the foundation does not expect donors to pull back because the state has already reduced maintenance and operating hours.
"What's happening in Sacramento is very unfortunate," Emory said. "We hope it gets corrected and it never happens again in the future, but we have our eye on the prize, which is always to make sure state parks stay open and accessible to Californians."