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No Charge for That: Hiding Millions and Getting Away With It

Wednesday January 30th, 2013   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 7:30am PST   •  

caagseal_square-230x229When we last addressed California’s hidden money scandal, the state’s Attorney General found that the state Parks had concealed only $20.5 million and the remaining $33 million was “simply obscured by long-term complexities in managing that fund.” The AG passed the buck by letting the state Natural Resources Agency decide whether to bring in local law enforcement. Now the Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, a Republican, has declined to bring charges because the Attorney General failed to identify any crime. That made sense on one level.

Governor Jerry Brown had asked the AG, a law-enforcement body, to conduct an “administrative” investigation, like asking the police to make sure a threatened business has all the right permits and signs in place. To “knowingly keep any false account,” is a felony according to section 424 of the state penal code, legal experts told the Sacramento Bee, which broke the hidden money story. If the AG knew about that statute, which may well be doubted, they still declined to file charges. With local law enforcement opting out Parks bosses are considering the case closed. Whoever hid the money got away with it, but the case still has educational value.

Government is clearly unqualified to investigate itself but remains unwilling to let independent investigators see the books. That’s why government employees can hide millions with impunity. One witness told the AG that the money was hidden so the state would not further reduce the Parks Department budget, a perfectly plausible motive. The scandal also revealed that a criminal background is no object to promotion in state government.

Career bureaucrat Manuel Thomas Lopez spent 12 of his 23 years in state government on court-ordered probation for a lengthy list of convictions, including felony drunk driving. But Lopez was duly promoted to deputy of administrative services in the parks department, where he presided over an unauthorized vacation buyout. His boss Ruth Coleman, who would not talk to the AG and has retained an attorney, accused Lopez of hiding the $54 million.

When the story broke Sen. Noreen Evans, Santa Rosa Democrat, wondered how much more “deceit and thievery” was going on in state government. That remains unanswered but prompts another question. California has long been a trendsetter for the rest of the nation. Could such deceit and thievery also be going on in agencies of the federal government, which operates scores of national parks? Odds are we’ll never find out.

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January 2013