Executing an about face, representatives from the California Attorney General’s office said criminal charges were possible in the California Parks Department scandal, during a Wednesday committee hearing in Sacramento, according to multiple reports.
Previously, the attorney general deferred to and then agreed with Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Sculley, who said her department would not pursue criminal charges.
However, after an investigation by Deputy Attorney General Thomas Patton revealed several high ranking officials within the parks department participated in concealing the existence of about $20 million from state finance officials over a 13-year period, officials in the state justice department are reconsidering that stance.
“The decision was made to undertake a more thorough review,” Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office told the Los Angeles Times last Wednesday.
The attorney general’s announcement came after a lengthy hearing the same day, when state park officials were grilled by members of California’s joint legislative audit committee, the Associated Press reported.
“State agencies simply don’t have the right to choose which funds they want to disclose,” said Assembly member and audit committee chair Adam Gray, D-Merced. “It is every department’s responsibility to be transparent about how they spend taxpayer money.”
State Senator Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who represents western Nevada County, called the parks scandal a “deliberate budget shell game” and demanded stricter oversight of California departments.
““Public officials, whether they are state employees or elected officials, are trusted stewards of taxpayers’ dollars,” Nielsen said.
The discovery of the secret $54 million fund was a public relations debacle that came last July as dozens of volunteer groups were scrambling to raise private funds and form partnerships to keep open 70 parks that were targeted for closure.
Two local parks, South Yuba River State Park and Malakoff Diggins State Park, were scheduled to be closed before the scandal hit.
Several local nonprofits, including the South Yuba River Citizens League, the Olmsted Park Fund and the Malakoff Diggins Park Association marshaled donations and volunteer efforts toward keeping parks open and expressed outrage when news of the scandal broke.
Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned and a senior department official was fired last summer.
Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine Corps major general, was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown late last year to turn around the beleaguered department.
“We acknowledge that unfortunate and improper actions occurred and need to be fixed,” Jackson said during the hearing, adding the department has a new leadership team in place.
The department has a budget of nearly $574 million in the current fiscal year, which comes from the state general fund, various bond funds, user fees and off-highway vehicle registration fees.
Investigators with the attorney general interviewed several high-ranking officials during their civil investigation, but Ruth Coleman was not interviewed.
It is not clear whether she will be involved in the follow-up investigation, the LA Times reported.
The parks scandal was the first of state improprieties that have directly affected Nevada County residents.
Last November, most residents living in rural areas of Nevada County were required to pay a $150 State Responsibility Area Fee to fund the California Department of Fire and Forestry’s forest fire prevention tactics in rural areas.
Cal Fire came under scrutiny in earlier this month after being accused of inappropriately diverting $3.6 million away from the general fund and storing the taxpayer dollars in an account managed by a nonprofit.
Last week, officials from the California Department of Transportation were scolded by a retinue of Nevada County representatives for running $840,000 over budget for the Highway 49 project at La Barr Meadows Road.
“This exemplifies the worst side of bureaucracy,” Sally Harris, a member of the Nevada County Transportation Commission, said to Caltrans officials responsible for the project.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.