Former Calif. Parks Official Says Boss Knew of $53M

Manuel Lopez said he told director about surplus about five times

California State Parks

A former state parks official said he repeatedly told his superiors about more than $53 million hidden in two accounts that could have been used to help California avoid the threat of closing 70 state parks, a newspaper reported Thursday.

Manuel Lopez, former deputy director of administrative services for the Department of Parks and Recreation, said he informed agency Director Ruth Coleman about a $20 million surplus in the Parks and Recreation Fund at least five times over a span of about five years, The Sacramento Bee reported.

A separate off-highway vehicle fund held another $33.5 million more than had been reported to the state Department of Finance.

Coleman resigned Friday over the situation and accepted overall responsibility but said in her resignation letter that she had been unaware of the surplus. She told the newspaper she doesn't recall being briefed.

Had she known, she said she would have sought to use the money to help keep parks open.
Lopez and Coleman did not immediately return telephone messages left Thursday by The Associated Press.

Sacramento attorney Marc A. Caraska, who is representing Lopez in a personal bankruptcy case, also did not immediately return a message.

State officials previously said the parks department had maintained the unreported money in its accounts for at least 12 years, including the entire time Coleman was director. She served under three governors and said in her resignation letter that she was "personally appalled" to learn of the hidden money.

In several media interviews after her resignation, Coleman blamed Lopez for failing to tell her about the surplus.

Lopez said he learned of the unreported money from the department's previous budget official when Lopez took over that responsibility in the spring of 2005. The department treated the $20 million in the parks fund as an emergency account that could be tapped if natural disaster caused a number of parks to close, he said.

"That was the rationale that was given to me -- by a number of people on the executive staff," Lopez told the newspaper. "There had to be some level of a safety net."

The unreported fund surfaced after reports that Lopez also administered an unauthorized program to buy out unused vacation time for 56 employees, costing taxpayers more than $271,000. He was demoted in October and resigned in May.

Lopez told the Bee he made the decision to buy out unused vacation time, including his own. Records show he received at least $20,600 from the buyout.

"I was not aware that I was violating any law or policy at that point in time," he told the newspaper, though he said he is in the process of hiring an attorney.

Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Agency that oversees the parks department, declined comment Thursday.

"We can't speculate about these allegations, pending the attorney general's investigation," he told The Associated Press.

Lopez and other parks officials also are being sued by a personnel official he fired last year. The former employee alleges she was a victim of sexual harassment.

Stapler also said he could not comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation. Lopez did not comment on the lawsuit in his interview with the Bee.

Last week, Lopez and his wife, a school teacher, filed for personal bankruptcy. Lopez listed himself as unemployed.

Gov. Jerry Brown made light of the parks scandal in his first comments on the matter Wednesday, saying during an unrelated news conference that it was the first time in his experience when government was criticized for saving money.

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