The Public Eye: New parks problem found

12/19/2012 12:00 AM

12/19/2012 8:01 AM

At the same time California state parks officials were hiding millions of dollars and secretly awarding vacation payouts, they also were routinely violating rules that control how long employees can work outside their job classification, according to a new audit.

Dozens of employees at the California Department of Parks and Recreation were inappropriately paid higher salaries for working outside their job classification, according to the audit released Tuesday by the state controller's office.

These "out-of-class" work assignments may have cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars beyond the misuse of funds at the department that has been previously reported.

The controller's scrutiny was triggered by a Bee investigation, published in July, that revealed a secret vacation buyout program offered to employees at parks headquarters in Sacramento. The buyouts – which violated state regulations – cost taxpayers more than $271,000, an amount sufficient to save a half-dozen parks targeted for closure as a result of state budget cuts.

The controller's office opted not to probe the vacation buyouts further, saying prior investigations by internal auditors and the attorney general's office were adequate. However, it did find that an additional three people received vacation buyout payments, for a total of 59. The amount of money paid to these additional three employees was $14,311, according to parks officials.

The audit also does not address a larger scandal involving $54 million that state parks executives were found to have hidden in two special funds for many years. That is the subject of additional audits under way by the state Finance Department and the attorney general.

The controller's audit focuses primarily on other revelations involving parks employees allowed to work in positions above their usual pay grade. The practice is common in state government to fill temporary staff vacancies.

But because the employee is typically paid more than his or her usual job classification allows, strict record-keeping is supposed to be followed and the assignment cannot last more than 120 days.

Auditors found 203 employees over a three-year period were assigned to these "out of class" positions within state parks. It remains unclear whether all of these were improper, because the department did not follow required record-keeping procedures before approving the assignments.

In many cases, managers circumvented the usual process to approve out-of-class assignments so the employee could begin without the required paperwork. This practice "presents a serious risk of abuse or fraud," according to the audit.

"There's a number of restrictions on this type of pay that were circumvented," said Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the controller's office. "The rules were clearly violated."

Because of inadequate documentation, the controller could not determine how much money was inappropriately paid to employees working above their pay grade. In the audit, it directs the parks department to figure that out and seek reimbursement from the employees.

In one potential example, it found that 17 employees worked beyond the required 120-day limit in their out-of-class assignment. These cases, which clearly violate state rules, amounted to an expense of $38,900.

In another example, 20 employees worked in out-of-class assignments for more than a year. The extra compensation amounted to $46,000.

One employee was found to have worked in an out-of-class assignment for 120 days, switched to a different one for another 120 days, and then returned to the first position for yet another 120-day period.

Caryl Hart, chair of the State Park and Recreation Commission, said the controller's findings suggest department officials were cutting corners in response to years of budget cuts and staff shortages.

"It doesn't in any way justify these results, but it's reality," said Hart, who is also director of the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department. "It sounds to me as if there was just sort of a pattern of not following the rules. People start to skip essential steps and stop doing what they're supposed to be doing when there's so much to do."

In a Nov. 30 written response to the audit, Aaron Robertson, chief deputy director at state parks, said the department has determined that all the affected employees ultimately were qualified to work in the out-of-class assignments. The problem was that required procedures were not followed.

"In general," Robertson wrote, "we acknowledge and it is widely known that some very unfortunate events occurred at the Department of Parks and Recreation."

He wrote that many of the controller's recommendations have already been adopted by the department.

His letter states the department will seek reimbursement from employees who inappropriately received out-of-class salary payments. Department officials said Tuesday they have not yet determined how much money must be reimbursed.

"We see these audits and investigations as a catalyst for change," Anthony L. Jackson, the new state parks director appointed in November, said in a statement. "And with a new executive management team in place, we will work diligently to earn back the trust of our fellow state agencies and the people of the State of California."

In two cases, parks officials disagreed with the controller's findings.

Where the controller found that some employees had been inappropriately accessing the payroll computer system, the parks department response said this was necessary to carry out a computer system conversion.

And where the controller found some employees were inappropriately paid for personal leave time while on disability, parks officials argued it was following policy.

"Policies were violated here, which cannot go on and must change," said Roper, who added the controller plans a follow-up investigation to make sure its recommendations are heeded.

MAJOR FINDINGS

Major findings of the California state controller's office audit:

Between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2012, the California Department of Parks and Recreation had 203 employees assigned to work in positions outside their job classification, usually with a pay increase.

In many of these cases, state parks managers circumvented normal payroll rules by assigning employees to out-of-class positions without adequate documentation.

At least 17 employees worked in out-of-class positions longer than the maximum 120 days, and 20 did so for more than a year.

In other cases, parks officials failed to properly adjust out-of-class pay for employees who were furloughed or not working because of disability.

In a number of cases, temporary employees and retired annuitants were allowed to work more than the maximum hours allowed per year by state payroll rules.

Three employees were found to have inappropriate access to the state payroll computer system.

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