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State parks official caught in unauthorized vacation buyout scheme

July 16, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
A California state park scandal involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in unauthorized payouts has come to light. The scandal involves big vacation buyouts that were not authorized, which came at a time when state parks were struggling for funds.

An internal Parks audit and one from the attorney general reveal a secret program where state workers got as much as $27,000 in checks without anybody knowing -- during a budget crisis.

As millions of Californians enjoyed the state's campgrounds and beaches, state audit reports show a high-ranking deputy director named Manuel Thomas Lopez was secretly carrying out an unauthorized vacation buyout program for certain park employees between May and July of last year.

Due to budget cuts, such perks haven't been allowed since 2007. Fifty-six people took advantage, with Lopez getting one of the largest checks at more than $20,000.

In all, the state doled out nearly $300,000 at a time when state parks have $1 billion worth of maintenance to do, and 70 parks faced closure at one point.

A whistleblower came forward.

"Some employee did the right thing and came forward to say 'Is this OK to do?' And we said 'No,'" said Roy Stearns, California Parks Department. But not before the checks were cut.

A redacted copy of the audits accuses Lopez of telling employees not to discuss anything in an email or memo -- that a Post-It note, in some cases, would suffice.

Then payroll codes were falsified with the hours being keyed in as overtime.

Investigators concluded Lopez authorized the payouts because his department would lose any money unspent at the close of the fiscal year, June 30.

And too many workers were above the 640-hour limit that state workers are allowed to accrue for vacation buyouts at retirement.

Retired Parks Deputy Director Ted Jackson is livid because some parks don't need much to stay open.

"There were a number of parks that only needed $100,000; $50,000; $200,000-- that would have got them through so that they wouldn't be on the closure list," said Jackson.

The Parks Department points out funds from a different budget year would not have saved the parks on the closure list this year.

Still, park visitors certainly can see what the money could have been spent on.

"There's less maintenance on the lawn. The bathrooms are falling apart. The tables, in fact, the one we're sitting at, kind of dilapidated," said state park visitor Kerri Monis.

"They're dirty. There's no really any lifeguards here. Lots of trash," said state park visitor Douglas Barton.

Neither audit will result in criminal charges because employees are entitled to their accrued vacation. They just got it early. After being demoted, Lopez resigned two months ago before he could be further disciplined.


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