Ex-state parks official agrees to pay $7,000 penalty in vacation buyout case

02/16/2013 12:00 AM

02/17/2013 12:21 PM

The central figure in one of the financial scandals that engulfed the California parks department last year has agreed to pay a $7,000 civil penalty.

Manuel Thomas Lopez, 45, of Granite Bay was deputy director of administrative services at the California Department of Parks and Recreation in 2011 when he authorized an illegal vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters in Sacramento.

The buyout, first revealed by The Bee in July, cost the state more than $285,000 as officials were slashing programs amid a budget crisis. A total of 59 parks employees benefited, including Lopez, who received the largest payout, totaling $28,646.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission undertook an enforcement action against Lopez for violating the Political Reform Act. The act forbids a public official from using his or her position for personal financial benefit.

In a settlement to be finalized at the commission's Feb. 28 meeting, Lopez admits to two violations of the act, for receiving two vacation buyout payments in 2011, and agrees to a $7,000 fine. That is less than the $10,000 maximum penalty, a commission staff report says, because Lopez cooperated with the investigation.

Lopez did not respond to a request for comment. He resigned from the department in May, just days before state officials planned to fire him.

Gary Winuk, chief of the commission's enforcement division, said Lopez already has paid the fine with a cashier's check. Winuk said it once was unusual for the commission to fine state employees for violating the Political Reform Act. In the past, the commission focused mostly on elected officials.

That changed about three years ago when the new commission chair, Ann Ravel, directed the staff to get more aggressive against conflicts of interest by state workers.

"We have prosecuted a lot more conflicts of interest cases in recent years than in previous eras of the commission," Winuk said via email.

The vacation buyout program at the state parks department allowed a select group of employees to cash in unused vacation time, a practice the state has banned since 2007 because of the budget crisis.

Subsequent investigations found that Lopez and other employees took steps to keep the program secret, including coding payments as overtime in the state payroll system to disguise them.

At the time, the department was moving to close 70 parks for the first time in history to achieve state budget cuts. The $285,000 spent on vacation buyouts was enough to save several parks from closure.

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