While California’s parks system cut services and threatened to close state parks, the department was sitting on a secret $54 million cash stash. Friday, Ruth Coleman, the parks department’s director, resigned, and her second in command was fired.
The discovery of tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars being squirreled away secretly by state officials has prompted an investigation by the Attorney General's office, according to a Sacramento Bee report.
The announcement also means the department has plenty of cash, even though it's been soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations in what was thought to be a desperate scramble to keep parks open.
"We will get to the bottom of this situation,” said a statement from secretary John Laird of the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department.
Officials say the department underreported tens of millions of dollars over the last 12 years. The Sacramento Bee newspaper first reported on the large surplus of money.
“It’s devastating,” said Caryl Hart, chair of the state parks commission. “I feel like a victim." It was not clear why Hart felt victimized, since the funds came from taxpayers.
Janelle Beland, the number two official at the California Natural Resources Agency, was tapped to replace Coleman as interim director. Coleman was with the department since 1999.
The state was set to close 70 parks this month to save $22 million, however nearly all were kept open through private donors, nonprofit groups and partnerships with other government agencies, despite the parks department sitting on $54 million in reserve.
State officials reportedly plan to conduct a full audit of the department and see if the hidden money can be used to mitigate park closures.