Crossposted on CalWatchDog

While the State Parks and Recreation department, under agency Director Ruth Coleman’s leadership, has been soliciting private donations to keep state parks open, top agency employees were bilking the state for vacation pay buyouts.

Is it really any surprise to read of the latest state employee pay scandal, this time ripping off the State Parks and Recreation agency of more than $271,000?

While California has been preparing to close 70 state parks, senior Parks department employees were taking large vacation buyouts.

“A high-ranking official at the California Department of Parks and Recreation carried out a secret vacation buyout program last year for himself and other headquarters staff, according to an internal audit, former employees and other documents obtained by The Bee,” the Sacramento Bee reported.

The scam

The scam goes like this: In the past, state employees have been allowed to sell unused vacation time back to the state for cash payouts. But these employees hadn’t received the proper authority to do this from the California Department of Human Resources. They did it anyway, and someone at the state approved the checks cashing out the vacation time.

According to the HR department spokeswoman, no vacation buyouts have been approved since 2007.

Vacation buyouts should never be approved, and and in fact, are abused regularly by state agencies. “State workers are allowed to accrue up to 680 hours of unused leave time during their career, but that cap is routinely ignored,” the Bee reported. This is a well-known scheme at the state, and one of the many perks of being a state employee. Because vacation is an earned benefit, all employers, including the state, are required to pay for all unused vacation when an employee quits, retires or is terminated.

Internal Audit–tip of the iceberg?

As for the cover-your-butt internal audit, I’ve been hearing about this vacation scandal for nearly a year from state employees. Several employees suggested that I contact the Bureau of State Audits for the records of the state employees vacation payouts, but I found nothing about the Parks and Recreation department.

And now it makes sense.

Low and behold, it turns out that the Parks and Rec agency has been doing its own little internal audit, and then fed the results to the Sacramento Bee in an attempt to do damage control. But the story was devoid of the names of the offenders, with the exception of the one parks department employee no longer with the agency. I am sure that Parks department officials feel that Manual Thomas Lopez who resigned, is enough of a sacrificial lamb, and this scandal will blow over.

Parks department gossip

It seems that most of the state parks agency employees also knew about the vacation rip off, and created several very public blogs sharing this information.

56 Parks and Recreation employees availed themselves of the buyout. But the Bee noted that  ”the program was made available only to employees at parks headquarters.”

Did the story call it a “program?” Was this vacation buyout scam a “program?” If so, someone other than the Bee should be digging through the internal audit, and heads should roll.

Privatize the state parks

I recently participated in a televised panel discussion with Coleman, Director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and Shelly Sullivan with the AB 32 Implementation Group, about the state of the state. I knew the information about the thieving parks employees, but was advised to opt for civility on the panel instead. I won’t make that mistake again. I’m nothing if not uncivil, when it’s called for.

During the taping of Politics on Tap with Greg Lucas, Coleman kept discussion centered around happy parks facts and sounded like the agency PR director.

However, Coleman is an experienced government employee, having worked many years for  the state, and the last 10 years for the State Parks and Recreation agency.

“Before coming to State Parks, Ms. Coleman worked in the state capitol as Policy Director for Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, [D-Davis,] and Legislative Director for State Senator Mike Thompson, [D-Napa,] focusing on environmental legislation such as, salmon and steelhead restoration, the protection of the Headwaters Forest, park bonds, water bonds, agriculture policy and water policy,” her biography states.

“Ms. Coleman also has worked for the Air Resources Board in the electric vehicle program and the Office of the Legislative Analyst, focusing on fiscal and policy issues in the natural resources area…”

Scandals such as this one can’t occur without many people knowing about it. This is gross mismanagement, an abuse of taxpayer money, and an abuse of power and position, and everyone involved should be brought up on charges.

This is a textbook example of why the state parks should be privatized. Since Coleman is soliciting for private dollars to keep parks open, those donating money, as well as taxpayers, should push for total privatization. The money saved by unloading the expensive state employees and instead hiring private sector employees, would allow for the continuation of California’s great treasures, and probably at a huge savings.