How Parks Fund Sham Was Uncovered
Editor’s Note: Joyce Terhaar, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, explains in this editorial how the newspaper broke the biggest story of the year in California: the state parks scandal.
To understand how reporter Matt Weiser was able to break The Bee’s state parks investigation, you need to go back a couple of years.
In June 2010, Weiser, reporter Marjie Lundstrom and a handful of reporters from McClatchy’s California newsrooms worked together on a series of stories chronicling decay, crime and other problems within the state parks system.
Reporters are only as good as their sources, and Weiser made quite a few during that coverage. As parks up and down the state faced closure due to budget cuts this past year, he began hearing bits and pieces of rumors about misspent money at headquarters.
Early on, “Nobody was willing to go on the record,” Weiser said, because of fears of retribution.
Once one source retired, freeing him to speak publicly, and Weiser was introduced to another who could provide records, names and specific dates, the story took shape.
You’ve seen the results during the past month. On July 15 The Bee published a story reporting that a deputy parks director, Manuel Thomas Lopez, approved a secret vacation buyout program that cost $271,000, even as the system was threatening to close parks.
While that money alone might have kept some parks open, it was nothing compared to Weiser’s next disclosure that the department had $54 million in “hidden” money.
Those stories revealed a scandal that has grown as more information became available. Early on Weiser submitted requests for documents under the Public Records Act. He’s written nine parks stories to date and has been joined by two reporters from our Capitol Bureau, Kevin Yamamura, who covers the state budget, and Jon Ortiz, who covers state employee issues and writes The State Worker blog and column.
We’ve compiled all the coverage in one location online at www.sacbee.com/parks/.
Yamamura understands the budget as few in the media do today. Part of the scandal around the $54 million was that two state financial powers – the controller’s office and the Department of Finance – had conflicting numbers and no one reconciled them. Then a media report grabbed attention statewide for claiming that similar discrepancies in other special funds meant the state appeared to have a windfall of $2.3 billion in similar undisclosed money. Yamamura was able to quickly show that the report was inaccurate and explain the context to readers. He then reported two stories revealing to readers how state officials have used the special funds as backdoor revenue streams to balance the budget.
The Bee’s coverage resulted in new documents being released last weekend, disclosing testimony from 30 interviews with state employees during an investigation of the vacation payout scandal. Those documents allowed Yamamura to report that the parks agency searched for ways to spend extra money each June even as it faced park closures and went without maintenance.
Ortiz followed Tuesday with a deep look at the way vacation is accrued within state agencies. While the official limit of accrued vacation is 16 weeks, the highest in the country among state workforces, the state’s enforcement is loose, particularly with managers, Ortiz reported. At least one involved in the parks payout had more than 40 weeks of accrued vacation.
Ortiz had reported the vacation accrual issue a little more than two years ago. Against a backdrop of state furloughs, the state’s bill for time off owed to employees reached $2.75 billion in 2010. As Ortiz wrote, prior to his request for this information, the state never had calculated how many hours it owed its workers, and what its total cost was.
In a disclosure that I’m interpreting as sadly ironic, the investigation testimony made public last week included a reference to The Bee’s coverage.
Tim Wood, a staff services manager for the parks department, was explaining what he knew of the excuses used to defend the payout. “If I’m not mistaken, there was an article that came out in the paper at that time talking about state employees and the fact of the cash-outs …
“My understanding of the situation … was that Manuel (Lopez, who approved the payout) was concerned that, you know, individuals that were above that 640 … we did not want to get into a situation where we were exposed to the news” for having too much accumulated vacation time.