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Scandal grows in CA parks system: Director resigns amid discovery of $54 million surplus

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Former State Parks director Ruth Coleman speaks at the grand opening of the Annenberg Community Beach House at Santa Monica State Beach on April 25, 2009. Coleman resigned her post on Friday July 20, 2012.

The Sacramento Bee reports that State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned Friday morning after officials learned the department had been holding a nearly $54 million surplus for as long as 12 years. At least one subordinate, her second in command, has been fired.

These departures come amid a recently revealed scandal involving the deputy director at State Parks, Manuel Thomas Lopez, who allegedly carried out an employee vacation buyout program that cost California more than $271,000 at a time when the department, thought to be nearly broke, considered closing dozens of state parks.

The Bee says investigations are underway by the Attorney General's office and the Department of Finance. Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird said his office is also investigating how and why the Parks and Recreation Department stashed so much money for so long.

The agency monitors the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the non-profit California State Parks Foundation, said the news about the surplus money is disturbing and appalling.

“We at CSPF and the parks community have been working tirelessly over the last few months to temporarily keep threatened parks open and people inside the department have not been honest about the resources that were available to parks,” said Goldstein.

The surplus money — $20.3 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund — was discovered after The Bee submitted a Public Records Act request for fund data on Wednesday.

Although Goldstein said the “hidden” $54 million dollars would not cover $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance at state parks. But she hopes California will use some of the money to support the parks. 

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