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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Publisher’s Notebook

• DPRgate: Who Knew What When at State Parks •

BY ANNE SOBLE

Malibuites have spent much of the last two years hearing some local officials and proponents of state Department of Parks and Recreation projects describe the agency as a paragon of environmental virtue and commitment to natural resources at the same time that DPR was perpetuating a major scam on the people of California.
While State Parks personnel were castigating local critics of DPR policies as being self-serving and driven by personal financial interest, the agency had what was tantamount to a slush fund of $54 million that it failed to report to the Department of Finance for 12 years.
This week, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the state Attorney General’s office would launch a formal investigation into “significant budgetary irregularities at the California Department Parks and Recreation dating back to at least 2000.” Brown also directed the state DOF to conduct a comprehensive audit of DPR’s financial records. A review of State Parks management is also planned.
The scandal erupted after some outstanding public interest sleuthing uncovered illegal and secret DPR vacation time buyouts of more than $271,000. It turned out this malfeasance was the first indication of a pervasive attitude of disregard for the law afflicting DPR’s mindset.
State Parks had this cache of $54 million while cutting services and threatening to close parks because of a “shortage of $22 million”—less than half of the hidden funds. This behavior is seen as a blatant betrayal of dedicated volunteers who are upset they were lied to and encouraged to undertake efforts to raise funds to keep parks open.
A thorough financial audit is critical, as is determining who up and down the chain of command knew what was going on and when. As has been learned during the Madoff and other scandals, it takes quite a few people to doctor books, juggle hidden funds, and keep this much money a secret from staff and contractors who act as quasi-staff.
Now that some non-governmental organizations, which were once DPR watchdogs, serve as agency appendages, they require oversight as well. In traditional public administration theory, agencies are co-opted by the interests they are supposed to regulate. DPR is a case of mutual cooptation, as the agency co-opts NGOs with hefty contracts and grants.
In a recent public interview, the officer of one group noted it has gone from a living room-based volunteer public advocacy effort to a $6 million dollar entity. How many government contracts and grants are required to help meet the group’s budgetary needs? Is it time to ask what percentage of these NGO budgets is met by donations and what percentage by government largesse?
Isn’t this related to the ancillary question of how organizations that have become agency contractors, or service vendors, are able to keep their non-profit status? Does this give NGOs an unfair bidding advantage? Is there even a public bidding process? Some disgruntled citizens say they are looking into IRS rulings that may address this kind of non-profit metamorphosis.
The governor used the threat of park closures to illustrate the state’s financial crisis in his pitch for higher taxes, but there are concerns in Sacramento. Could the admission by officials that they didn’t know DPR had these funds undermine the call for voters to send additional tax dollars to the state capital?
One reason major wrongdoing could go undetected for so long is there are no longer any citizen watchdogs keeping an eye on DPR. No one is able to challenge the agency without fear of financial repercussions. The current situation cries out for groups to form whose hands are not in the agency’s pockets. Someone has to represent the public’s interest in California’s public lands.

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