State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned this morning and her second in command has been fired after officials learned the department has been sitting on nearly $54 million in surplus money for as long as 12 years.
The moves come in the wake of a scandal, revealed by The Bee on Sunday, in which a deputy director at State Parks carried out a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters last year. That buyout cost the state more than $271,000.
The Bee began inquiring about rumors of a surplus when it learned about the buyout, and submitted a Public Records Act request for the fund data on Wednesday.
John Laird, secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency, which oversees State Parks, told The Bee that investigations have been launched by both the Attorney General's office and the Department of Finance to figure out how -- and why -- the Department of Parks and Recreation squirreled away so much money for so long.
"Ruth has stepped up and taken personal responsibility," Laird said of Coleman, who is the longest-serving director in the 150-year history of the department. "It's an incredibly troubling discovery."
Laird emphasized that it remains unclear who is to blame for the surplus, and whether it is linked to the vacation buyout, which sources told The Bee was carried out by Manuel Thomas Lopez, 45, of Granite Bay, who was demoted in October and then resigned in May.
The surplus money consists of $20.3 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund, which are the two primary operating funds at the agency. This money was not reported to the state Finance Department, in contrast to normal budgeting procedures.
The department sat on the money for unknown reasons even as it carried out, over the past year, the unprecedented closure of 70 parks to satisfy state budget cuts.
Most of those closures did not occur because nonprofits and local governments found money to take over the parks. The money could also have prevented drastic cutbacks in hours, staffing and services that have stricken nearly every park in the state over the past two years.
In an interview Friday morning with The Bee, Laird said the discovered funds are "one-time" money and it will be up to the Legislature to decide how to use it.