Two more California parks department officials leave their jobs in scandal

Published: Friday, Jul. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:13 pm

Two more high-level employees have departed the state Department of Parks and Recreation in the wake of a financial scandal.

The departure of Ann Malcolm, who had been chief counsel at the Parks Department for two years, was announced in an email to staff late Wednesday. She was the department's top lawyer for two years and previously served in the same capacity at the Department of Fish and Game.

Also leaving the department is Jay Walsh, who was a special assistant to parks director Ruth Coleman.

Clark Blanchard, spokesman for the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees state parks, confirmed the departures but declined to provide further information. Neither Malcolm nor Walsh could be reached for comment.

The state attorney general's office, meanwhile, has set up a phone hotline and email address to collect tips as it investigates the department.

The Bee reported July 20 that state parks has been sitting on $54 million in "hidden assets" for at least 12 years.

The money was held in two special funds even as the agency undertook painful service reductions and park closures to achieve $22 million in budget cuts. Some of the surplus money could have been used to avoid those cuts, but it was never reported to the Department of Finance, as required by long-standing state fiscal policy.

Coleman submitted her resignation July 19. Her second in command, acting chief deputy director Michael Harris, was fired.

The events came a week after The Bee broke the news of another scandal – involving an unauthorized vacation buyout program offered to employees at park headquarters in 2011 – which cost the state more than $271,000.

Manuel Thomas Lopez, the former deputy director of administrative services at state parks, told The Bee on Thursday that he was responsible for the buyout. He was demoted in October and resigned in May.

Gov. Jerry Brown has directed the Finance Department to audit state parks to explain the $54 million surplus.

Brown also asked the attorney general's office to investigate. On Thursday, the attorney general set up the phone hotline and a special email address to collect tips. State employees and members of the public with relevant information are urged to call (916) 324-7561 or email ParksInvestigation@doj.ca.gov.

It wants information only on the surplus funds, not the vacation buyout, which it already investigated.

Legislative Republicans on Thursday urged Democratic budget leaders to repeal $15.3 million in annual funding for state parks that lawmakers passed in June. The money is in a new "incentive" account for projects that generate more revenue, such as adding improvements at campgrounds and credit card kiosks to collect entrance fees.

"As you are aware, the recent budgetary scandals at the Department of Parks and Recreation have undermined the public's faith in government," wrote GOP Assembly members Jim Nielsen and Beth Gaines. "As leaders on the Budget Committee, it is imperative that we work together to restore credibility to an already damaged budget process."

Also Thursday, the California State Parks Foundation, a longtime nonprofit partner with the state, wrote to the governor and Legislature to request a separate probe by the state auditor to assure an "autonomous and unimpeded audit" of state parks. It urged lawmakers to appropriate the surplus to keep parks open and to fund new revenue generating programs.

"I cannot convey enough how deeply shocked and dismayed we have been to learn of the irregularities that have surfaced from the Department of Parks and Recreation," wrote Elizabeth Goldstein, foundation president.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matt Weiser



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