Dan Walters: California park funds flap needs closer look

dwalters@sacbee.comFebruary 20, 2013 

An old joke goes something like this: A man applies for an accounting job and his would-be employer asks whether he can do double-entry bookkeeping.

"Double-entry?" the applicant replies. "I can do triple-entry. I'll show the business breaking even for your partner, and a loss for the Internal Revenue Service, and tell you the real story."

That's more or less what happened in the state Department of Parks and Recreation, as first laid out in The Bee seven months ago.

For years, department managers had been pleading poverty – and even saying they would have to close some parks to remain solvent – while squirreling money away and giving different numbers to different financial overseers.

Belatedly, the Legislature appears to be finally getting serious – or at least semi- serious – about getting to the bottom of the scandal, a mini-version of which has since been exposed in the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

On Tuesday, the Legislature's audit committee delved into a report from the state auditor's office on the parks and recreation imbroglio, along with reports from the Department of Justice, the Department of Finance and the State Controller's Office.

It also heard assurances from the parks department's new director, retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson, about a new "set of values."

That's fine as far as it goes. But it's apparent that the misleading financial reports date back at least to the late 1990s and continued even after bean counters at the Department of Finance noted discrepancies and asked the department to reconcile them more than a decade ago.

There probably wasn't any criminal offense – or at least that's what the Department of Justice concluded. The mysterious millions weren't stolen, diverted into wild parties or anything like that.

Rather, high-ranking department officials hid the money as a hedge against budget cuts or from fear that reporting larger fund balances would imperil appropriations from the Legislature or, it seems, undercut the public appeals for more money to keep parks from closing.

The real effect, therefore, was to undermine public confidence and, perhaps even more importantly, the willingness of volunteer park support groups to raise money to supplement state funds for maintenance of what many consider to be the nation's finest system of state parks.

The Legislature should not stop at airing the after-the-fact investigations and audits that have been conducted in the last seven months. It has subpoena power and should use it to bring past department directors and other high officials into the Capitol to answer, more directly, questions about who decided to hide the money and why.

It's needed to restore luster to a tarnished institution.

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