To hear at least one former state parks administrator tell it, the now infamous $54 million in secret money wasn't much of a secret.
"It's common knowledge that that's what they do when they report it," says former parks budget officer Cheryl Taylor in a transcript of an April interview with state attorneys about parks fund balances.
Taylor was one of 28 parks employees interviewed in the transcripts released to news organizations, including News10, over the weekend. The interviews were done as part of an internal investigation into a vacation payout to some top parks employees of more than $270,000.
But some of those interviews revealed the quiet existence of $20 million in parks money hidden in plain sight inside one of the department's main revenue accounts. And what remains unclear is how these interviews, conducted in early spring, didn't lead to full and immediate disclosure to lawmakers at the state Capitol; instead, that disclosure only happened in late July -- long after the state budget was signed into law.
Former parks administrator Manuel Lopez, fired for his role in the vacation buyouts, has told the Sacramento Bee that other parks officials knew about the money -- both the $20 million in the main parks fund and another $34 million in an account dedicated to off-highway vehicle programs.
In a private interview with attorneys on April 25, former administrator David Saxby told of his surprise when being asked to review budget data that revealed the money.
"When I saw the numbers, I said, 'Holy crap,'" recounted Saxby in the released transcript. "You know, [I said] 'You got to do something.'"
The documents also offer an unflattering view of spending and accounting decisions that appear to have been largely driven by maximizing state general fund dollars.
"If you exceed what you project you're going to collect," said Cheryl Taylor in her interview about parks revenues, "[the governor's Department of Finance] would like to reduce that amount" in what the department gets from the state budget.
"The Department doesn't want to do that," said Taylor.
In another interview, former deputy director Michael Harris refers to an internal email that described parks officials attempting "to swim in the gray area when possible" on budget decisions and whether those decisions were in line with accepted practices.
"It was quite shocking," says former Schwarzenegger budget director Mike Genest on the July revelation of the hidden parks money. Genest says he never had any inkling of what was going on. And he says he remains puzzled why the money would be squirreled away, as any additional spending would have required legislative approval.
"There's no reason to think anybody would do this," he said Monday. "Well, somebody did."
Multiple investigations are underway, and Gov. Jerry Brown has said he thinks parks should benefit from the extra money.
Meantime, the new leader of the department says she's trying to focus on moving parks forward.
"There's a lot of cross checking and double checking trying to make sure different divisions that are responsible for different pieces of the puzzle are communicating and having someone else review their work," said acting parks director Janelle Beland.
Beland says she is also working to reassure parks supporters, including many of those who donated money and time to keep parks open, that changes are underway.