A second state department is caught hiding money. Once again, there will be an audit, a legislative hearing and no doubt a "full" investigation.
Details still are emerging, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concealed $3.66 million that should have gone into the general fund.
Its arrogance underscores the larger issue: The money doesn't belong to some bureaucrat with a badge -- even if he fully intends to spend it on things he feels his department needs.
In a budget that exceeds $130 billion, $3.6 million might be considered dust. Dust or not, the money didn't belong to Cal Fire bureaucrats -- as they knew, according to internal documents.
It belongs to the people. The money should have been deposited in the general fund, for the benefit of the state.
Starting in 2005, Cal Fire collected the $3.6 million in settlements of lawsuits against property owners who had liability from fires, as was first reported by The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. Attorneys defending Sierra Pacific Industries discovered the cache of money while fighting a lawsuit in which the state seeks to recover the costs of quelling the Moonlight fire.
Rather than depositing the money into the general fund, as required by law, Cal Fire used it to buy goodies including digital cameras, GPS equipment and metal detectors, and pay, as The Sacramento Bee's Kevin Yamamura reported, $33,000 for a conference at a Pismo Beach resort.
The California District Attorneys Association, which should have known better, agreed in 2005 to manage the money in exchange for payments which totaled more than $370,000 over the seven-plus years.
Cal Fire officials knew months and maybe years ago that what they were doing was wrong, as drafts of early audits showed. They passed up several chances to come clean and hand the money over to the Department of Finance.
Instead, Cal Fire officials clammed up as Department of Finance auditors scoured departments looking for hidden funds last year, in the wake of revelations that the State Department of Parks and Recreation squirreled away more than $20 million.
Cal Fire remained mute as the California attorney general investigated, lightly as it happens, the parks department.
Finally, the District Attorneys Association, whose past leaders showed questionable judgment by entering into the agreement with Cal Fire in the first place, severed the arrangement in December after its leadership learned about it.
It was another opportunity for Cal Fire to come forward. But its officials did not.
Now the California Department of Finance has commenced an audit. Auditing is an essential part of budgeting.
So is trust.
The Department of Finance relies on the honesty of the myriad state departments and those who work in them to provide truthful and complete information. In this instance, Cal Fire, a department responsible for protecting people and property, stumbled badly. In the process, it has sacrificed the public trust.