Probe Launched Into Hidden $54M in State Parks Money

The California Attorney General is investigating missing $54 million in surplus from the State Parks department

By Jason Kandel
|  Friday, Jul 20, 2012  |  Updated 3:52 PM PDT
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State Park Closures

The department that runs California state parks, popular with hikers, has been found to secretly have a $54 million surplus. The disclosure comes after months of hand-wringing over looming parks closures due to a budget shortfall of $22 million.

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The California Attorney General’s Office has launched an investigation into a secret $54 million fund stashed away by the California state parks system.

The investigation and an audit to be done of the State Parks and Recreation Department was launched in response to budget irregularities and “fiscal mismanagement,” according to a statement released Friday by the California Natural Resources Agency, which monitors the parks department.

Gov. Jerry Brown accepted the resignation of Parks Director Ruth Coleman and ordered the reviews of the parks department management.

Coleman said she was unaware of the budget irregularities but accepted responsibility.

"I am personally appalled to learn that our documents were not accurate," she wrote in her resignation letter, which was released by the governor's office.

The budget irregularities in the nation's largest state parks system -- with 279 park sites -- date to at least 2000.

A preliminary investigation into the department's finances has revealed that for at least 12 years officials underreported tens of millions of dollars to the state Department of Finance.

As a result, the Department of Finance was not aware that the State Parks and Recreation Fund and the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund held $20.4 million and $33.5 million, respectively, above the department’s official, most recently reported balances.

"I welcome Gov. Brown’s swift action to address these hidden assets," said John Laird, the secretary for Natural Resources. "We will get to the bottom of this situation …"

In recent years, state budget problems have threatened the future closure of 70 state parks. The Legislature found a way to prevent closure for those parks, but not until after months of hand-ringing, campaigning and private fundraising by parks advocates.

The investigation will work to see how the hidden money can be used to prevent future park closures, Laird said.

In addition to resignation of Coleman, Gov. Brown also said the department’s acting chief deputy, Michael Harris, is also being removed from his position.

California Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland has been appointed by Brown as acting interim director of the parks department.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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