State Parks Funding

Ex-parks official had criminal past

The Public Eye
The Public Eye

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.

Manuel Thomas Lopez, 45, is the former deputy director of administrative services at the California Department of Parks and Recreation who has admitted carrying out a vacation buyout program in 2011 that state officials have deemed unauthorized. Lopez himself benefited from the program, which cost more than $271,000.

His former boss, parks director Ruth Coleman, accused Lopez of also playing a role in hiding $54 million in two special funds at the parks department. For as long as 12 years, for reasons that remain unclear, the department misrepresented the balance in the two funds in its regular reports to the state Finance Department. The practice continued even as the department moved to close 70 parks to absorb state budget cuts.

The discovery of the hidden funds, first reported by The Bee on July 20, is now the focus of an attorney general's investigation and legislative hearings that began this week.

In addition, the state Fair Political Practices Commission has begun a separate investigation of Lopez related to the vacation buyout program. It alleges he violated conflict of interest law by awarding himself a benefit not generally available to other state employees. Gary Winuk, enforcement chief at the commission, said other executives at state parks may be investigated as well.

Under the buyout program, 56 employees at state parks headquarters were covertly allowed to sell unused vacation time back to the state last summer. This included Lopez, who received $20,600, according to payroll records. By state law, such buyouts must be approved by the state Department of Human Resources. This one was not.

Lopez was paid $113,000 a year in regular salary as a deputy director. The parks job gave him oversight of budget and personnel matters at the department. He had a consistent run of pay raises and promotions at five state agencies, until he was demoted in October when an internal investigation of the vacation buyouts began, according to state payroll records.

A Bee investigation found that even as he scaled the ranks of state government, Lopez ran into legal troubles in his personal and professional life.

In 1988, five months before he began his state career as a "student assistant" at the Employment Development Department, Lopez was convicted of a misdemeanor for theft, according to court records.

Nine months later, he was convicted of his first driving under the influence offense, a misdemeanor, and put on probation for three years.

In 1992, now working at the Education Department, he was prosecuted for a second DUI. He was convicted on a lesser charge of reckless driving, the DUI charge was dismissed, and he was placed on probation for three years, according to the court records.

Two years later, in August 1994, Lopez was prosecuted for another DUI charge, according to Sacramento County court records. This resulted in a felony conviction, partly because it included an accident that injured someone. Now working at Caltrans, he spent six days in jail and was sentenced to 180 days on a sheriff's work furlough program and five years' probation.

Last month, he and his wife filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection; the court filing indicates they have $86,000 in credit card debt.

Lopez also has been the target of two workplace sexual harassment lawsuits.

One occurred while he worked for Caltrans as a budget analyst. According to allegations in the lawsuit, filed in 2005, Lopez touched the breast and buttocks of a female subordinate, Gloria Moore, referred to her as "Mrs. Robinson" in reference to the movie "The Graduate," and placed a shot glass on her desk that depicted a sex act. Caltrans settled the lawsuit in 2007, paying Moore $50,000 and her attorney's fees.

The second lawsuit was filed in June concerning events at state parks in 2011, and is still pending. Adure Renee Velazquez, a former personnel manager, alleges Lopez joked about sexually obscene behavior in a work setting even after she objected. She claims Lopez fired her because she objected to the way he treated other women at parks headquarters who complained about sexual harassment.

Lopez, a Granite Bay resident, did not respond to a request for comment for this report. In a previous interview, he took responsibility for the vacation buyout program, but said he wasn't aware it was improper. He also said that he told parks director Coleman on at least five occasions that the department was sitting on millions of dollars of surplus money.

Randy Andrada, an attorney Lopez recently hired to defend him in the Velazquez lawsuit, also declined to comment. "Obviously the case is in litigation, so we're really not going to comment on any aspect of the matter," Andrada said.

Harassment role alleged

According to Placer County court records, Lopez was on court-ordered criminal probation when he initiated the vacation buyouts in 2011. That three-year probation was for a misdemeanor conviction in April 2009 of driving on a license that had previously been suspended for a DUI.

It is unclear from the available public records how long Lopez had been unlicensed at that point. The last DUI conviction against Lopez that could be located in court records was in August 1994 – 15 years earlier.

State law permits DMV to disclose only the most recent three years of license suspension or revocation data. Those records show that Lopez had his driver's license suspended for one year as a result of the 2009 conviction in Placer County, until April 22, 2010. It was suspended again, according to DMV, for 11 days in 2011 for failing to provide proof of car insurance.

Testimony in another recent sexual harassment lawsuit against the parks department suggests Lopez routinely drove with a suspended license while on state business.

Lopez is not named as a defendant in the 2010 case, which is still pending. But his name comes up in testimony for allegedly condoning behavior by a subordinate manager which contributed to harassment of the two women, and for other questionable behavior.

"I know that he was traveling on state business during the period of time that he had a suspended license," Olivia Suber, a retired personnel officer at state parks headquarters, said in a deposition taken under oath for the case.

Lopez also was reimbursed for mileage expenses that occurred while he was legally forbidden to drive, a source told The Bee.

An attorney general's investigation into the unauthorized vacation buyout program references an employee at state parks headquarters who was charged with misconduct for driving on state business without a valid driver's license and filing expense claims for mileage during those trips. A settlement of this claim on June 2, 2011, according to the investigation, required the employee to repay the department $2,793.80.

Names are redacted in the copy of the April investigative report obtained by The Bee. But an official in Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, who is familiar with the Lopez case but was not authorized to release the name, told The Bee that Lopez was the employee in question.

The attorney general's investigation goes on to state that this employee was allowed by his superiors to cash out additional vacation time in order to repay the debt, because he claimed to be having financial problems and "was in jeopardy of being evicted from his apartment."

Lopez's direct supervisor, former acting chief deputy director Michael Harris, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Neither did Coleman, the former parks director. Harris was fired on July 19, the same day Coleman resigned.

Bosses' knowledge unclear

How can a man rise to heights in state government with a checkered personal history? It's a complicated question that raises a host of employee rights and personnel management issues.

California law allows the state to discipline an employee for a number of reasons, including a felony conviction and sexual harassment. Lynelle Jolley, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources, said the law is meant to be flexible so managers have leeway to discipline or terminate employees as necessary.

"It's going to be the decision of the department where an employee works as to whether a criminal conviction is interfering with their job performance," said Jolley. "The state's personnel policy is that departments should take aggressive disciplinary action where it is warranted."

When a state employee is confronted with a formal disciplinary action for improper behavior, a "notice of adverse action" is filed with the State Personnel Board. Jolley said there are no such actions on file about Lopez during his state career.

DMV offers a service that would have notified the parks department about Lopez's moving violations and license suspensions. To take part in the service, an employer has to give DMV a list of employee names to track.

The parks department subscribes to that service, but did not submit Lopez's name as an employee to follow until March of this year, said DMV spokesman Mike Marando.

At that point, DMV notified parks officials of two license suspension events. The first was on April 28, 2009, when Lopez was convicted of driving on a license that had been suspended for a prior DUI conviction, and for having no proof of insurance. This arose from a citation issued on March 31 of that year.

The second came the very next day, when Lopez was convicted again for driving on a license that had previously been suspended for "other reasons" – and again for having no proof of insurance. This conviction arose from a multiple-vehicle car accident on Jan. 16, 2009, in which Lopez was found primarily at fault.

The Bee asked Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees state parks, if Lopez's superiors knew about his criminal history or his difficulty holding onto a driver's license. He could not find out the answer.

"The people who knew are no longer working at state parks," Stapler said. "So I was not able to verify with any of them whether, in fact, anyone knew about it or not."

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