Criminal review of California parks department ongoing, officials say

SACRAMENTO — Officials at the California attorney general’s office have reversed course and begun a deeper examination of the accounting scandal at the state parks department that could result in criminal charges.

The renewed probe was disclosed Wednesday during a legislative hearing on state parks. Previously, the attorney general’s office had concurred with a decision by the Sacramento County district attorney not to pursue a criminal case, much to the chagrin of some lawmakers.

During the hearing, state Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) asked why officials of the Department of Parks and Recreation weren’t facing criminal charges for hiding millions of dollars from the governor’s office and the Legislature.

“Fraud is a crime,” she said.

Peter Southworth, a supervising attorney general, said, “My office is still reviewing the matter,” but would not comment further. He also would not say whether Ruth Coleman, the former parks director who was ousted when the hidden money was revealed last year, would be subpoenaed as part of the inquiry.

“The decision was made to undertake a more thorough review,” Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said in a later statement.

The attorney general’s office released a report in January saying that some parks officials had deliberately hidden about $20 million of the $54-million surplus discovered in the department’s accounts. The rest was due to accounting discrepancies, the report said. However, Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Jan Scully said the state’s review didn’t identify potential crimes or suspects.

A subsequent letter from Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Michael P. Farrell said state officials agreed with that decision.

“Nothing disclosed by any person … has prompted this office to commence a criminal investigation,” he wrote.