BY JULIET WILLIAMS AND JUDY LIN Associated Press
SACRAMENTO -- Officials at the highest levels of the California Department of Parks and Recreation helped keep millions of dollars in money intended for state parks secret for more than a decade, the California attorney general's office said in a report released Friday.
The report said the "intentional non-disclosure" continued because employees feared the department's budget would be cut if lawmakers found out, and that they would be embarrassed about the years of covering it up.
"Throughout this period of intentional non-disclosure, some parks employees consistently requested, without success, that their superiors address the issue," Deputy Attorney General Thomas M. Patton wrote in the report.
Parks Director Ruth Coleman, who had been director since 2002, resigned and a senior parks official was fired last summer after $54 million was found hidden in two special funds as up to 70 parks faced closure.
The report said the actual amount intentionally hidden was $20 million, and the remainder of the discrepancy was due to differences in accounting between government departments. The amount of money kept hidden had grown as high as $29 million in 2003, the report said.
No employees were found to have stolen or wrongly spent any of the money, the report said, but senior officials made deliberate decisions not to report the additional funds to the state Department of Finance, which helps the governor establish the state's annual spending plan.
Coleman has denied knowing about the hidden money. She was the only current or former employee who would not agree to be interviewed by the attorney general's office, the report said. The report is based upon interviews with 40 former and current employees.
The report said several senior officials "were all well aware of the discrepancy."
The report said all indications were that Tom Domich, the department's assistant deputy director of administrative services from 1987 to 2004, likely made the initial decision to keep the money secret, but several successive staffers continued the effort.
"The facts show that former budget officer Becky Brown noticed the growing disparity as early as 1998," the report said. By late 2002, "the budget and accounting officers and their supervisor ... were all aware of the discrepancy. Thereafter, from 2002 to 2012, numerous individuals failed to take appropriate action to ensure the monies were revealed to the DOF."
At least two budget officials told investigators they reported the hidden money to Domich, but he "refuses to acknowledge these facts and unpersuasively denies all knowledge of the disparity and his role in the deception," the report said.
"Consequently, it also cannot be determined with certainty whether the matter was reported to Ruth Coleman, who became acting director in January 2002 and went on to serve as director until July 2012," the report said.
Messages left by The Associated Press at the telephone listings for two people named Tom Domich were not immediately returned Friday.
Rob Boriskin, who was assistant deputy director of administrative services from February 2005 to April 2006, told investigators that he recalls bringing the matter to Coleman's attention, and she told him to focus on "the bigger overall pictures and not spending so much time doing spreadsheets."
But the report said claims that Coleman knew of the money are "unreliable."