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:
Were any crimes committed, and if so, will anyone be held to answer?
The state attorney general's investigation into the secret funds, released Jan. 4, made it clear that $20.5 million was kept hidden in the State Parks and Recreation Fund (SPRF). The fund is the primary collection point for all visitor fees paid at the 278 parks in the California Department of Parks and Recreation system. Another $33 million, held in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund, was not intentionally hidden, according to the report, but was obscured nonetheless by complexities in managing that fund.
The investigation also revealed that, although the amount of the hidden funds varied over time and originally piled up because of budgeting errors, numerous high-ranking officials at parks headquarters in Sacramento made a decision to keep the money concealed from state finance officials for as long as 13 years.
"It is clear," the investigation states, "that by no later than 2003, and perhaps as early as 1999, the failure to accurately report all SPRF monies
became conscious and deliberate."
This finding raises the specter of criminal conduct, according to several legal experts interviewed by The Bee. And many state parks advocates who opened their own wallets and volunteered time to keep parks open are waiting for answers to this question.
"If there is evidence that crimes were committed, they should be prosecuted," said Daniel Winkelman, a retired state parks ranger who lives in Folsom. "It's as simple as that."
The attorney general's office did not review whether any crimes were committed. It conducted only an "administrative" investigation in response to a request from the Governor's Office, said Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees state parks.
Officials at the Natural Resources Agency initially said they would review the attorney general's investigation for signs of criminal conduct, then refer the investigation to the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office, which would be responsible for bringing any criminal charges.
Now Stapler says the Natural Resources Agency will depend upon the attorney general to share its investigation with the district attorney.
"We do not have criminal attorneys working for us," Stapler said. "We need to have it reviewed through that lens of someone who does criminal prosecution in order to make any type of public determination."
Linda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said her agency planned to formally share its investigation with the district attorney "in the next few days."
Several former officials at state parks have admitted, in testimony released by the attorney general, that they chose to keep quiet about the surplus money over many years.
Some cited a concern that if they informed the Department of Finance about the money, the parks department's general fund budget allocation would be reduced by an equal amount the next year, potentially harming park operations.
Others said they considered the surplus money a "rainy day fund." They told investigators they hoped this money could be used to support parks, like a safety net, in the event a natural disaster slashed visitor revenues.
These choices violate numerous state administrative policies, as well as sections of the Government Code, which require employees to file accurate reports and to reconcile, or explain, inconsistences between accounts reported to the controller and the finance department.
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264 or via Twitter @matt_weiser.