SACRAMENTO -- State finance officials caught accounting discrepancies at the California parks department as far back as 1999, but the issue was not resolved until it mushroomed into an embarrassing scandal last year, according to a new audit released Thursday.
The audit also described other loose practices at state parks: Parks and Recreation Department officials haven't tracked costs and spending for individual parks, and base operating estimates on 2002 guidelines, making it difficult to get detailed financial information.
Lawmakers ordered the audit after it was revealed last year that the department had a hidden surplus even though it was threatening to close dozens of facilities. A subsequent investigation by the attorney general's office determined that parks officials had deliberately hidden about $20 million in hopes of preventing budget cuts.
For years, parks officials would report accurate financial information to the state controller, who tracks cash flow, and smaller figures to the Department of Finance, which plans the state budget.
"Such inconsistencies may have resulted in the Legislature and the governor using inaccurate financial information when making budgetary decisions concerning the department," the audit said.
The audit said finance officials noticed the issue back in 1999.
"Neither current staff nor documentation we reviewed in the accounting and budget files at the department supplied an explanation regarding what originally caused the differences or why the issue was not resolved until the fall of 2012," the audit said.
In a written response, parks department officials said they would follow the auditor's recommendations to improve the way they track financial information.
A new director, Anthony Jackson, was put in charge of the department after the previous person in charge, Ruth Coleman, was forced out when the accounting problems were revealed.