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“Deceit and Thievery”: How Government Parks Money in Secret

Monday July 23rd, 2012   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 1:24pm PDT   •  

California faces a deficit of nearly $16 billion and has cut the $384 million budget of the state Parks Department by one-third. Embattled cities and private groups have been contributing funds to keep facilities open, but department bosses warned that a recent budget cut of $22 million would force them to shut down 70 parks. Now it emerges that the Parks Department had stashed away $54 million, which could have kept many parks open, but which was not reported to the state for twelve years.

Parks Department Director Ruth Coleman, who resigned over the revelation, said she was “appalled” over the hidden funds, which she blamed on a former administrator in the department. That person allegedly underreported the money and the state Department of Finance failed to cross-check the figures.

The hidden $54 million prompted Sen. Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa Democrat, to pose a key question: “If one department can hoard $54 million for 12 years, who else is playing the same tricks of deceit and thievery?” The problem may lie in California’s weak laws on public disclosure and government transparency, outlined in a recent study.

Evans called for audits of every department. The Office of State Audits and Evaluations is part of the state Department of Finance. The Director of that Department is Ana Matosantos, whose BA degree is in political science and feminist studies, not finance or economics. When busted last year for drunk driving, Matosantos offered to resign, but Gov. Jerry Brown refused to accept her resignation.

The hidden $54 million, meanwhile, follows revelations of secret and unauthorized vacation-pay buyouts by 56 Parks Department employees that cost the state $271,000. Employees were ordered to keep the plan secret and records were kept on Post-It notes to avoid a paper trail.

The vacation pay and hidden money scandals confirm how the nation’s largest state mishandles, hides and wastes money, but state government still wants to extract more dollars from private citizens. California already has the second-highest state income tax but Governor Jerry Brown has placed a tax hike on the November ballot. California recently gave pay raises to 93 of the 300 legislative employees already being paid more than $100,000 a year.

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July 2012