A lawmaker on Wednesday (Aug. 15) questioned whether the attorney general’s office is fit to investigate the state parks department, which is embroiled in numerous controversies.
During a Senate budget committee hearing, Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, said lawmakers should consider an outside investigator, The Associated Press reported. His concern arose after it was revealed that lawyers for the attorney general’s office and parks department were made aware of hidden money months before top officials said they learned of it.
The attorney general’s office has not said what it did with that information. Spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill declined to give details because the investigation continues.
The governor’s finance director, Ana Matosantos, said administration officials acted quickly upon learning about the surplus in July.
“As soon as the agency and the governor learned of the circumstance, within 48 hours, that information was publicly reported,” Matosantos told lawmakers. “The broader issue about what exactly occurred at parks, who knew what at parks, when? This is all subject to investigation.”
Marc Le Forestier, director of legislative affairs for the attorney general’s office, said the investigation should be completed mid-October.
Democratic lawmakers said they plan to propose a moratorium on park closures for two years and want to give the Parks and Recreation Commission more oversight authority. But Emmerson said it would be difficult for lawmakers to craft legislation to address the department’s problem without knowing what happened.
“I’m concerned about the organizations that are supposed to be doing oversight having done so with the type of strong effort that they should have,” he said. “I’m concerned about the ability for us to get the kind of information we need.”
Emmerson and Republican lawmakers requested Democratic leaders ask key officials involved in the parks funding scandal to testify under oath. The officials did not appear Wednesday.
Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said, “There is an open criminal investigation at the Department of Justice and we would not want this hearing to jeopardize any testimony in that open investigation.”
According to a sworn declaration filed in court Tuesday, former parks employee Cheryl Taylor said she told state attorneys that her department was hiding about $20 million in a special fund several months before officials announced discovering the money.
The California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department, said the department failed to report $20 million in a parks recreation fund and another $34 million in a fund for off-highway vehicle activities to the state Department of Finance, which uses department reports to write the annual state budget plan.
Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird said last month that the $54 million in hidden money was found in July by a new park fiscal staff member while the attorney general’s office was examining the unauthorized vacation buyouts by parks employees.
Taylor’s court declaration says the attorney general’s office knew as early as January.
The Assembly also has held hearings from the fallout of the controversies.