Fired Parks Deputy Owns a Checkered Past

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August 13, 2012 by   - () Leave a Comment

The former deputy director of California state parks at the vortex of a financial scandal has a string of criminal convictions, including a felony DUI, and spent 12 of his 23 years in state government on court-ordered probation, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Manuel Thomas Lopez, 45, is the former deputy director of administrative services at the California Department of Parks and Recreation who has admitted carrying out a vacation buyout program in 2011 that state officials have deemed unauthorized. Lopez himself benefitted from the program, which cost more than $271,000.

His former boss, parks Director Ruth Coleman, accused Lopez of also playing a role in hiding $54 million in two special funds at the parks department. For as long as 12 years, for reasons that remain unclear, the department misrepresented the balance in the two funds in its regular reports to the state Finance Department. The practice continued even as the department moved to close 70 parks to absorb state budget cuts.

The discovery of the hidden funds, first reported by The Sacramento Bee on July 20, is the focus of an attorney general’s investigation and legislative hearings that began last week. In addition, the state Fair Political Practices Commission has begun a separate investigation of Lopez related to the vacation buyout program. It alleges he violated conflict-of-interest law by awarding himself a benefit not generally available to other state employees. Gary Winuk, enforcement chief at the commission, said other executives at state parks may be investigated.

Lopez was paid $113,000 a year in regular salary as a deputy director. The parks job gave him oversight of budget and personnel matters at the department. He had a consistent run of pay raises and promotions at five state agencies, until he was demoted in October when an internal investigation of the vacation buyouts began, according to state payroll records.

A Bee investigation found that as he scaled the ranks of state government, Lopez ran into legal troubles in his personal and professional life. Beginning in 1988, five months before he began his state career as a “student assistant” at the Employment Development Department, Lopez was convicted of a misdemeanor for theft, according to court records.

He was also prosecuted for driving under the influence in 1989, 1992 and 1994, according to Sacramento County court records. He’s also filed for bankruptcy and has been the target of two workplace sexual harassment lawsuits.

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