The State Worker: No theft in Parks Department's leave-time cashouts

07/26/2012 12:00 AM

02/26/2013 8:13 PM

Here's one of the best things you can say about the Department of Parks and Recreation's cash-for-leave mess and the ensuing funding scandal: At least the state workers involved didn't steal money.

They did expose a flaw in the state's budgeting system. They did damage state workers' public image. They did breach the public trust. But they didn't steal.

Auditors have been dissecting how parks employees pulled off the scheme, first reported by The Bee's Matt Weiser, that cashed out about $270,000 of leave time on the books for 56 department managers in Sacramento.

State workers cash out leave when they exit state service unless they have permission to do it earlier. That didn't happen here.

Auditors dispatched by state Controller John Chiang have found that one parks manager and one supervisor reported the leave-time buyouts as "straight overtime," meaning they went to Chiang's office for payment last summer at the regular wage rate, not at time-and-a-half.

"That's why it didn't set off any alarm bells," Chiang spokesman Jacob Roper said.

The two unnamed employees had some ethics – they deducted the corresponding hours from the 56 leave accounts, Roper said. That avoided outright theft.

"We have suspended their access to the payroll system," Roper added.

Departments handle their own payroll accounting, then pass the numbers to the controller for check writing. While Chiang's office has "some internal controls in place" to catch irregularities, the scope and complexity of the leave cashout program made detection nearly impossible, Roper said.

The Bee's inquiries led to the revelation last week that some officials knew of $54 million parked in two department accounts.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who wants Californians to vote for his November tax measure, on Wednesday put heavy upspin on the story: "This is the first problem I've ever seen where actually people in government saved money, and that's good, because we have the money and we can use it."

Well, OK, but somehow his Department of Finance didn't know about all that money. Chiang's office had the information, but finance officials didn't use it. See the problem?

The administration has launched its own audit of Parks and Recreation and a more sweeping review of the state's budget reporting practices, Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said Wednesday.

No audit can change history, which will forever note that Parks and Recreation went begging to the private sector for money to keep facilities open while it sat on millions of dollars.

Businesses, volunteers and philanthropists stepped up. West Sacramento-based Raley's, for example, kicked in $75,000 to keep the Governor's Mansion open.

Now imagine next year if the state really is desperate. Will Raley's step up again?

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