Sacramento County DA won't file charges in state parks scandal

01/25/2013 12:00 AM

01/27/2013 9:36 AM

The Sacramento County district attorney said Thursday she will not pursue criminal charges against state parks officials in the recent "hidden funds" scandal, saying a recent investigation by the state attorney general left her little option because of its "failure to identify any crime."

District Attorney Jan Scully responded after the attorney general's office shared its investigation into the parks scandal, a move that state officials expected would finally resolve who was liable for hiding more than $20 million at the same time the cash-strapped state government was moving to close 70 parks and allowing parks across California to fall into disrepair.

The attorney general's investigation found that numerous high-ranking employees at the California Department of Parks and Recreation made "conscious and deliberate" acts to hide the money as a secret "rainy day fund" for as long as 13 years. These decisions violated state budget rules, the Government Code, and possibly the Penal Code.

Another $33 million, held in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund, was not intentionally hidden, according to investigators, but was obscured nonetheless by complexities in managing that fund.

"There is no indication who your office considers to be suspects, and if so, what crime they may have committed," Scully wrote in the three-page letter released Thursday.

"It is thus unclear why the matter has been referred to our office at all, and whether your office intends to retain its historic authority in the prosecution ... of such cases."

Numerous employees at state parks headquarters have been disciplined since the scandal broke last July, and today the entire leadership at the department consists of new people. The long-serving parks director, Ruth Coleman, resigned on the eve of the revelations, and her deputy, Michael Harris, was fired. Nearly a dozen others quit, were demoted or reassigned.

Yet many people in the nonprofit parks community have been waiting for a greater justice to be done. In the months before news of the surplus money was first reported by The Bee, thousands of Californians donated money and time to rescue dozens of parks from closure – efforts that might not have been necessary had someone revealed the $20 million surplus.

"Something is horribly wrong with a system that allows individuals and state offices to hide or abuse millions of dollars without punishment," said Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin, a member of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee who has monitored the scandal.

Though the attorney general's office is technically the state's top law enforcement agency, officials there have emphasized they were asked by Gov. Jerry Brown to conduct only an "administrative" investigation. Thus, most of the agency's interviews with current and former parks employees were done without the legal admonishments required for their statements to stand as evidence in a criminal proceeding.

The attorney general's report drew no conclusions about who was at fault or whether any state laws might have been violated. Instead, agency leaders referred the investigation to the district attorney to decide whether crimes took place.

"Without such an initial preliminary conclusion on the part of your investigative staff that a crime was committed," Scully wrote, "the referral of the case to our office for criminal review is simply not appropriate."

The letter was also signed by assistant district attorney Albert Locher. They noted they were returning the investigative materials to the attorney general's office.

Late Thursday, the attorney general's office responded with its own letter, defending its decision not to investigate criminal charges and seemingly bringing an end to the probe.

"A speedy resolution was as critical as a comprehensive one," Michael P. Farrell, senior assistant attorney general, wrote.

Legal experts told The Bee in a story published Monday that Penal Code section 424 is a likely criminal charge to apply in the parks matter. The law makes it a felony for a government official to "knowingly keep any false account."

It now appears unlikely that the lingering question of criminal behavior by state parks officials will ever be answered.

Lynn Rhodes, a retired chief of enforcement at the parks department, said many in the parks community are ready to put the scandal behind them.

"That's not to say, though, that all of the proper things shouldn't be done," said Rhodes.

"I just hoped, after all this has transpired, that everyone would be forthcoming and everything would be dealt with in the best way possible. I'm not sure whose place it would be to ask the attorney general to clarify its report."


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