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.

A new probe of financial scandals at the California Department of Parks and Recreation found that officials maintained a hidden cash surplus for as long as 20 years – far longer than previously known.

The Sacramento Bee's investigation of California state parks funding has been recognized with a McClatchy Co. President's Award for journalism excellence.

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."

Six months after the public learned that California state parks officials had concealed $20 million even as they were crying poor and closing parks, one crucial issue remains foggy as ever:

Former California state parks leaders engaged in a "conscious and deliberate" effort to hide millions of dollars for as long as 13 years, according to an investigation by the state attorney general's office released Friday.

The grand act of atonement that state leaders signed into law to correct a financial scandal at the California parks department may not turn out to be the healing gesture it first appeared to be.

Another audit of the California Department of Parks and Recreation found yet more mystery money: $3.9 million in a fund for donations that had no assigned purpose.

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.

An expert in drafting battle plans has been appointed to lead the California Department of Parks and Recreation out of the trenches of its recent financial scandals.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation is investigating whether crucial records were destroyed by officials at Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area, an off-roading park in the desert east of San Diego.

Gov. Jerry Brown gave California's 278 state parks a two-year reprieve from closures Tuesday after embarrassing revelations that parks officials were hiding funds for years.

Over and again, budget officials at the California Department of Parks and Recreation struggled to understand why every fiscal year ended with millions of dollars in surplus cash on hand.

The amount of money hidden by California state parks officials in one of two special funds has suddenly become unclear, preventing the Legislature from spending the money to repair and reopen parks.

To understand how reporter Matt Weiser was able to break The Bee's state parks investigation, you need to go back a couple of years.

State workers call it "use it or lose it," a practice in which departments try to spend every last penny rather than save for the good of the overall California budget.

The California Natural Resources Agency recently released more than 1,000 pages of interviews, adverse action notices and reports that detail a covert employee leave buyback program at the Department of Parks and Recreation during the summer of 2011.

The California Natural Resources Agency recently released more than 1,000 pages of interviews, adverse action notices and reports that detail a covert employee leave buyback program at the Department of Parks and Recreation during the summer of 2011.

What started as a quiet scheme to draw down excessive leave hours built up by state parks managers quickly spread, first to hardship cases and then to the rank and file, according to recently released state investigative documents.

Manuel Thomas Lopez, the central figure behind the parks and recreation scandal, spoke with state investigators about the plan before abruptly leaving his post earlier this year.

In 2004, California voters authorized $15 billion in bonds to erase a massive budget deficit at the urging of lawmakers and newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The state Department of Parks and Recreation routinely searched for ways to spend extra money each June despite facing the threat of park closures and forgoing upkeep at its 278 properties, based on newly released transcripts from an internal investigation.

Former state parks director Ruth Coleman knew the department was running a budget surplus of $20 million even as it was carrying out a plan to close 70 parks, according to testimony released by the state Natural Resources Agency late Friday.

California parks officials apparently used obscure payroll codes intended for wildfires and disasters such as Hurricane Katrina to turn vacation time into overtime pay for managers, the state controller's office testified Wednesday.

Lawyers at the highest levels of state government knew the California Department of Parks and Recreation was sitting on millions in surplus money as early as April, months before it was officially acknowledged, according to testimony submitted Tuesday in a civil lawsuit.

Three executives at the California Department of Parks and Recreation have been disciplined because they "manipulated the system" or gave "recklessly flawed advice" in carrying out an unauthorized vacation buyout program for department employees last year.

The former deputy director of state parks at the vortex of a financial scandal has a string of criminal convictions, including a felony DUI, and spent 12 of his 23 years in state government on court-ordered probation, according to court records.

In their first examination of state accounting problems, California lawmakers condemned parks officials Thursday for hiding nearly $54 million from budget writers.

A joint legislative panel asked Wednesday for an independent audit of California's state parks department after revelations that officials there hid nearly $54 million and approved unauthorized vacation buyouts.

Republican leaders in the Legislature on Wednesday called for former State Parks director Ruth Coleman and others to testify about financial problems at the agency.

Gov. Jerry Brown has the right idea for using "hidden" money from a special fund found in the state parks budget. Keep it in the parks system.

Gov. Jerry Brown asked lawmakers Friday to spend $20 million in newfound parks money on repairs and a matching fund to solicit future donations rather than return money to donors who gave when they believed the system was broke.

California drivers pay fees for smog checks, vehicle registrations and new tires, all supposedly for programs that benefit roadway use.

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

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.

The man at the center of a financial scandal at the state Department of Parks and Recreation told The Bee this week that he repeatedly advised his superiors that the department was sitting on millions of dollars in surplus money.

Californians are rightly outraged by revelations that the state Department of Parks and Recreation has quietly hoarded more than $53 million in two special funds that could have saved parks from the chopping block. They also should be outraged if they don't get a full accounting of how it happened.

It was an embarrassing and potentially significant setback for Gov. Jerry Brown and his ballot initiative to raise taxes when nearly $54 million in apparently hidden state money appeared.

California state parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned and her second-in-command was fired Friday after officials discovered the department has been sitting on "hidden assets" totalling nearly $54 million.

Here are key players in the emerging scandal at the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Fourteen months ago, 70 of California's 278 state parks were slated for closure. As Parks and Recreation Department Director Ruth Coleman stated at the time, "With proposed budget cuts over the next two years, we can no longer afford to operate all the parks within the system."

Sacramento's lavish Victorian-style Governor's Mansion will remain open as a state park, thanks to thousands of environmentally minded grocery shoppers.

Dozens of California state parks struck down by the budget ax are slated to close their doors in three weeks. Yet that process remains so unsettled that even state officials can't say with certainty how many parks will actually close.

The only state park in Plumas County will be spared the budget ax, thanks to a donation from its park association, the California Department of Parks and Recreation announced.

Want to run a state park?

Slowly but surely, nonprofits and local communities are exploring what they can do to keep open the 70 state parks slated to close on July 1.

The tree had toppled over onto the picnic table, crushing it with its weight.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park reopened today after being closed since a wind storm on Dec. 1 caused heavy damage from fallen trees.

When I viewed the list of the 70 state parks scheduled for closure, the biggest surprise was Mono Lake Tufa State Nature Reserve.

Leaders of the California parks department on Tuesday were unable to explain to lawmakers the full list of criteria they used to pick 70 state parks for closure.

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