State Parks Funding

3 California parks officials disciplined in vacation buyout scandal

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 details emerged in formal disciplinary actions the parks department has taken against the employees. The Bee obtained copies of the notices from the State Personnel Board, which is responsible for adjudicating them.

The secret buyout program, which occurred mostly in May and June of 2011, resulted in payouts of more than $271,000, and came as the parks department moved to close 70 parks to absorb state budget cuts. The program, in which employees were allowed to sell unused vacation time back to the state, was limited to 56 employees at parks headquarters in Sacramento. To avoid a paper trail, the buyout requests were submitted in some cases only on Post-It notes, not official forms, according to an internal department audit.

Manuel Thomas Lopez, former deputy director of administrative services at the parks department, has been held responsible for initiating the buyouts, first reported by The Bee on July 15. Lopez has not been served with a "notice of adverse action," as the disciplinary actions are known. He was demoted in October and resigned in May.

The three employees subject to formal discipline are David Saxby, Jason Summers and Paris Jackson. All three are cited for "inexcusable neglect of duty," "misuse of state property" and "failure of good behavior" for their roles.

Saxby, the assistant deputy director of administrative services, is the highest-ranking of the three. He received a formal reprimand on Aug. 6. Summers, the department's personnel director, was relieved of that title and demoted on Aug. 3. Jackson, the assistant personnel officer, had her salary cut by 5 percent for one year starting Aug. 3.

Saxby declined to comment when contacted by The Bee on Monday. Summers and Jackson did not respond to phone messages.

Although they were disciplined, all three remain on the job at the parks department.

Saxby plans to retire Aug. 31, according to an email he sent on June 21, a copy of which was obtained by The Bee. His email makes no mention of the vacation scandal, but was sent after investigations of the buyout were complete.

Richard Stapler, spokesman for the state Natural Resources Agency, which oversees state parks, said the actions against the three are consistent with past practice. "Based on a review of past disciplinary actions against other employees, it was determined these were the most appropriate actions," he said.

State law permits only the California Department of Human Resources to authorize vacation buyouts. It did not do so in this case.

According to the disciplinary notices, Saxby, Summers and Jackson participated in meetings with Lopez when the buyout was conceived.

The action against Jackson indicates she "manipulated the system" by ordering her staff to process vacation payments as overtime, because the payroll system would not accept a vacation code.

"You directed this, even though you knew the subject employees had not worked overtime," the notice states.

Summers gave Lopez "recklessly flawed advice" by saying that because vacation buyouts had been done before, it would be OK again, the notice states.

Saxby not only endorsed the initial buyout, according to the disciplinary notice, but approved a special buyout for a single employee after the new fiscal year began.

"None of the criteria for lawfully executing a leave buy-back pertained to this transaction," the notice states.