State parks dept. charged with financial misdeeds |

State parks dept. charged with financial misdeeds

The state agency that attempted to close down two iconic Nevada County parks, only to have it discovered that it had been squirreling away more than $54 million, is in trouble again.

About 200 employees of the California Parks Department were overpaid by a total amount of approximately $500,000 from July 2009 through July 2012, according to a report issued by the California State Controller’s office on Tuesday.

State Controller John Chiang painted a picture of rampant abuse within the department saying employees and managers violated numerous state policies and keyed in payroll with proper documentation or authority, creating the risk of abuse, fraud and overpayments.

“The deliberate disregard for internal controls along with little oversight and poorly-trained staff resulted in improper payouts to Parks’ employees,” Chiang said in the report. “When security protocols and authorization requirements so easily can be overridden, it invites the abuse of public funds.”

The review also found improper access to the payroll system.

During the summer, The Union reported on a number of unauthorized leave “buy-backs,” in which employees were inappropriately paid the cash value of their accrued vacation or other leave time. The Controller’s review found that approximately 90 percent of those unauthorized leave buy-backs were keyed by two parks department managers who used the payroll system without approved access.

Other problems discovered in the audit include improper use of disability leave, and abuse by temporary employees who were granted more hours than allocated, resulting in $11,272 in extra pay, according to the report.

“In general, we acknowledge and it is widely known that some very unfortunate events occurred at the Department of Parks and Recreation, in particular with the mismanagement of payroll systems and data,” said Roy Stearns, parks department spokesman in a prepared statement.

“We take very seriously SCO’s audit findings and are using them to continue to improve and safeguard our payroll systems.”

Six individuals who were with the parks department during the period have been either fired or disciplined, Stearns said, including former Director of the Parks Department Ruth Coleman.

Coleman resigned in July amid assertions that her department sat on nearly $54 million in surplus money for years, while 70 state parks — including South Yuba River State Park and Malakoff Diggins State Park — were placed on a closure list.

She has been replaced by Anthony Jackson, a former Marine Corps major general, who labeled the audit “a catalyst for change” in the Tuesday release.

The parks department said the 70 parks needed to be closed in order to save $22 million over a two-year period.

The discovery of the hidden funds sparked outrage among the local environmental community, which had galvanized to raise money to salvage the two endangered parks.

“The state parks staff betrayed the public trust, they betrayed our community and betrayed our children,” said Caleb Dardick, executive director of the South Yuba River Citizens League.

The state controller issued a statement Tuesday, calling upon the parks department’s new management team to pursue reimbursement from employees who received compensation to which they were not legally entitled.

The controller will also perform routine oversight on the state department that has been beset by a series of financial misdeeds, the report states.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email or call (530) 477-4239.

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