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California parks officials improperly boosted pay, audit finds

California parks officials improperly boosted pay, audit finds
State Controller John Chiang, seen last year, says managers in the California parks department improperly boosted salaries with “deliberate disregard for internal controls, along with little oversight and poorly trained staff.”
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

SACRAMENTO — Managers at the California parks department circumvented payroll policies and boosted salaries improperly, the state controller said Tuesday.

Controller John Chiang said the payouts were made with “deliberate disregard for internal controls, along with little oversight and poorly trained staff. When security protocols and authorization requirements so easily can be overridden, it invites the abuse of public funds.”

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Chiang said that bad record keeping in the department made it impossible to determine a total for the amount of money improperly paid.

The payroll issues are coming to light months after revelations last summer that parks officials had a hidden $54-million surplus at a time when the department was cutting services and threatening to close parks. Disclosure of unused funds led to the ouster of department Director Ruth Coleman.

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The payroll problems took many forms, the controller’s office said. One involved “out of class” payments, which is extra money paid to employees for handling duties outside their regular responsibilities. Over a three-year period, 203 employees received a total of $520,000 for such work, but a lack of documentation prevented officials from determining how much of those payments were improper, the office said.

In another example, several temporary employees were allowed to exceed their annual ceiling of 1,500 hours of work.

The parks department conceded Tuesday that it had made errors.

“We acknowledge and it is widely known that some very unfortunate events occurred at the Department of Parks and Recreation, in particular with the mismanagement of payroll systems and data,” spokesman Roy Stearns said. The department is using the controller’s findings to “continue to improve and safeguard our payroll systems,” he said.

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Stearns said officials would try to have employees return any overpayments.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed a retired Marine general, Anthony Jackson, to replace Coleman as director. Jackson is awaiting Senate approval.

“We see these audits and investigations as a catalyst for change,” Jackson said in a statement. He said the department will “work diligently to earn back the trust of our fellow state agencies and the people of the state of California.”

The state Department of Finance is conducting its own audit of the parks department. Spokesman H.D. Palmer said the findings could be released before the end of the year.

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chris.megerian@latimes.com


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