In a welcome about-face, Attorney General Kamala Harris is conducting a criminal investigation of the state parks "hidden funds" scandal after all.
Her office had punted, citing the excuse that Gov. Jerry Brown only asked for an administrative review. Harris referred the case to Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, who sent it right back last month, questioning why her office got the matter in the first place.
That appeared to be the end of it -- until a legislative hearing Wednesday, when a deputy attorney general let it be known that there's an ongoing criminal inquiry.
Harris' office isn't saying much more. Spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill says that after Scully's decision, "the attorney general, out of an abundance of caution, decided our office should conduct a thorough criminal review." Whether or not a crime was committed that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, it's clear that some state officials violated the public trust.
Since The Sacramento Bee's Matt Weiser broke the story in July that parks officials kept $20 million in a secret reserve fund even as they threatened to close 70 parks because of budget cuts, three state agencies have confirmed that the state Department of Parks and Recreation hid the cash for at least 13 years from state lawmakers and budget officials.
The attorney general's administrative review uncovered "conscious and deliberate" acts to hide the money. Under state law, it is a felony -- carrying a punishment of as long as four years in prison -- for a government official to knowingly keep a false account of public money.
So far, there is no evidence that any individuals profited, or that the money was misspent. State Auditor Elaine Howle, whose review tracked the hidden surplus to 1993, has theorized that the department wanted to avoid cuts by holding back the money -- generated from fees from parkgoers -- in case fee revenue dipped. Since the Legislature authorizes the agency to spend a certain amount of fee revenue annually, it presumably would be none the wiser that a hidden account existed.
Even if this investigation doesn't result in any charges, it will give taxpayers and parks supporters more assurance that the state's top law enforcement official got to the bottom of this controversy.
Reinforcing the independence of the attorney general's office and shoring up public trust in government are no small concern. They're well worth the effort.