The California state parks system as state government itself is in deep budget trouble.
Yet that did not stop the head of one division within the state parks system administrative services, which handles accounting and personnel functions from hatching a scheme to give himself and 55 managers immediate cash payouts for their unused vacation time.
This gaming of the system, by the very people who handle money transactions, came at a time when the state parks system was announcing the closure of 70 state parks and nonprofit organizations were striving to raise private funds to keep parks open. That $271,000 could have helped keep parks running.
This betrayal, detailed in a November 2011 internal audit and an April state attorney general's investigation and reported by The Bee's Matt Weiser on Sunday is despicable. While names have been redacted, details make it clear that the ringleader was Manuel Thomas Lopez, who was deputy director of administrative services. But he was not alone. Others were complicit in the outrage.
These people deserve public censure not redacted names in a report. They should be terminated, with letters in their files so they can't return as "retired annuitants" to state service. Those who falsified documents should be prosecuted.
Let us be clear. This scandal reveals not just corruption by individuals but problems with the state's vacation leave system.
California state government does not have a "use it or lose it" system, as in the private sector. State employees are allowed to bank unlimited vacation hours and to cash them out when they retire. When employees come close to 80 days worth of unused vacation, or 640 hours, managers are supposed to create a plan for the employee to burn the balance before the next year, according to the state employee handbook.
But many employees are well over the 80-day, 640-hour guideline, which creates a big liability for the state when people retire.
So on rare occasions, in flush budget times, the state will authorize a limited statewide leave buyback for all departments to reduce the state's future liability. The last one was in March 2007, before the economic collapse. Such buybacks do not happen during economic hard times.
That makes the crafty stratagem dreamed up in the administrative services division all the more offensive. According to the audit and investigation, the ringleaders justified a buyback because of an "expected budget surplus." What planet were they on?
This came at a time when executive staff in the state parks system, according to the investigation, agreed that "although extensive leave balances were worrisome as a future liability to the department, it was not politically feasible to do any kind of buyback because of the dire situation which the department faced, including park closures."
To get around this, the schemers coded vacation hours as "overtime" to get checks from the state controller's office and cover their tracks.
The plan was hatched in June 2011. By fall, rumors of the buyback were flying. By Oct. 19, Lopez had been relieved of his position and an internal audit was launched. Others have been demoted or are retiring.
The state is putting better controls in place to police unused vacation buybacks, but state officials would do better to thoroughly re-examine vacation policies with the aim of establishing a "use it or lose it" policy, providing less opportunity for unscrupulous characters to exploit a complicated system.
No doubt, those who have resisted changes in the state parks department public-private partnerships and routes other than law-enforcement rangers to become superintendents, for example will use the scandal to unfairly undermine state parks director Ruth Coleman, who has served since 2002. In fact, employees blew the whistle, and leaders took quick personnel action.
The individuals involved in the scam did more than deprive the state parks system of $271,000 when it desperately needed every dime to keep parks open. They besmirched public service at a time when public trust is needed.