State Parks Funding

Testimony: Chief told of parks surplus

Editor's Note: The second paragraph in this story was changed on Aug. 18 to correctly identify the name of the person in the investigative interview.

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.

Coleman was briefed regularly about the $20 million surplus in the State Parks and Recreation Fund, according to an investigative interview earlier this year with Cheryl Taylor, the former budget officer for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Taylor was interviewed April 12 by two lawyers, one from the state attorney general's office and another from the parks department. They were investigating an unauthorized vacation buyout program carried out covertly at parks headquarters in 2011 by Manuel Thomas Lopez, the department's former deputy director of administrative services.

The Bee reported Wednesday, based on a short summary of this testimony, that the two lawyers had been told about these "hidden assets" months before state officials acknowledged knowing about it.

The full interview, however, reveals that Taylor also told the lawyers that Coleman and her chief deputy, Michael Harris, knew about the surplus much earlier as a result of regular meetings with Lopez.

"Ruth knows about it," Taylor said. "That's what I'm saying – that's why I was hesitant to even have discussions with you. Ruth and Michael are very much aware."

The full interview is contained in more than 1,000 pages of documents released late Friday by the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department.

Coleman did not respond to a phone message left at her home.

The testimony by Taylor corroborates a statement made by Lopez in a Bee interview last month. He said he had briefed Coleman about the budget surplus on at least five occasions.

Coleman has repeatedly stated she did not know about the surplus because Lopez withheld the information from her. Administration officials have maintained they first learned about the surplus the week of July 16. Coleman resigned on July 19, and Harris was fired.

The documents released Friday also reveal that the parks department moved to fire Lopez in early May. The termination notice targets him for "dishonesty," among other charges. Lopez, however, resigned on May 16, just days before the notice could be delivered.

According to the notice, Lopez received $28,647 in vacation buyout payments, more than any of the other 55 employees who took part.