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Parks director resigns amid financial scandal

A file photo shows Ruth Coleman who resigned as director of the California park system Friday. (Associated Press)
A file photo shows Ruth Coleman who resigned as director of the California park system Friday. (Associated Press)

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.

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 unauthorized vacation buyouts.

The administration said it disclosed the accounting problem within 48 hours of the discovery.

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 and 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.


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