Parks Employees Take Unauthorized Vacation Buyouts Even as Closures Loom

Monday, July 16, 2012

While budget shortfalls threaten dozens of state parks with closure, 56 officials in the Department of Parks and Recreation have claimed unauthorized vacation buyouts worth at least $271,264, according to the Sacramento Bee.

The department was struggling with $22 million in budget cuts last year when employees with large amounts of accrued vacation time were quietly allowed to sell their hours back to the state but went out of their way to avoid alerting human resources officials, which by law must approve the transactions.

With rumors of buybacks swirling through the Parks Department ranks, Director Ruth Coleman conducted an internal audit in October, which was followed by an investigation in the Attorney General’s office in January. Parks Deputy Director of Administrative Services Manuel Thomas Lopez was demoted shortly thereafter and then resigned.

Lopez reportedly received the largest payout, $20,600, but no criminal charges have been filed. The audit unearthed evidence that there may have been similar buyouts in 2004, 2005 and 2008. Employees are compensated for accrued vacation when they leave their jobs, but early claims have not been authorized since 2007.

Employees who participated in the buybacks were warned in emails to keep the transactions secret. Investigators reportedly found that the buybacks were disguised as overtime claims, personal leave or other types of compensation.

The Parks Department managed to avoid closures at 70 threatened parks during the summer through a last-minute $10 million budget reprieve and deals struck with municipal governments, non-profit organizations and private parties. But the parks still lack a secure revenue stream and closures still loom.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Unauthorized Vacation Buyouts Secretly Pushed Through at State Parks Department, Audit Says (by Matt Weiser, Sacramento Bee)

Parks Department Internal Report (pdf)

Attorney General’s Report (pdf)

Parks Get a Reprieve Despite Governor’s $31 Million Budget Veto (by Ken Broder, AllGov)

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