Best of #StateReads: Ex-Parks Official Had Criminal Past

By: - August 15, 2012 12:00 am

This week’s collection of #StateReads covers the criminal past of the former official at the center of a scandal at the California Department of Parks and Recreation, deteriorating conditions in Illinois prisons and the results of a new gun law in Virginia.

These examples of extraordinary journalism about state government were recommended in tweets using the#StateReads hashtag on Twitter and in email submissions to [email protected].

“Ex-parks official had criminal past” — The Sacramento Bee

The former high-level state official at the center of a financial scandal at the California Department of Parks and Recreation has a complicated criminal past, reports Matt Weiser (@matt weiser) of The Sacramento Bee. Former Deputy Director Manual Thomas Lopez, 45, has been accused by his former boss of playing a role in hiding million in special funds even as the state was forced to close 70 parks to absorb budget cuts. Lopez has admitted carrying out an unauthorized vacation buyout program in 2011 that cost the state ,000. The Bee‘s investigation found that Lopez spent 12 of his 23 years in state government on court-ordered probation, with multiple convictions, including a felony DUI and a misdemeanor for theft. “It’s going to be the decision of the department where an employee works as to whether a criminal conviction is interfering with their job performance,” a spokesperson for the Department of Human Resources told the Bee.

“Gov. Quinn keeps public in the dark on prison conditions” — WBEZ Chicago

Blocked by Governor Pat Quinn from visiting the state’s prisons — which now house 14,000 more inmates than they were built to house — WBEZ’s Rob Wildeboer (@WBEZ) pieces together a nuanced account of the conditions from former inmates and watchdog groups. “I couldn’t believe that they would actually expect people to live under those type of conditions,” one former inmate who was incarcerated for more than 29 years told WBEZ. “The place is infested with rats and the rats were so aggressive that we used to call them kangaroo rats ’cause while I was there quite a few guys had rats actually jump up in bed with them.”

“Analysis shows some state workers made more in OT than regular salary” — The Houston Chronicle

The state of Texas spent million on overtime last year, with some employees more than doubling their take-home pay by working extra hours, found Houston Chronicle reporters Yang Wang (@Yangyangyang) and Terri Langford (@tlangford). “The state’s overtime bill reflects some of the shifting challenges Texas faced last year that have forced supervisors to approve employees staying late and working longer, instead of hiring new employees,” they write. Furniture movers, food stamp specialists, psychiatric assistants and Governor Rick Perry’s security troopers were found to be among the top earners. One Perry security official earned ,136 in overtime on top of a ,402 annual salary.

“New homes burn faster, but states resist sprinklers” — Reuters

Heavy use of prefabricated building materials in new construction creates new fire risks, leading fire safety groups to advocate for sprinkler requirements. But they haven’t had much luck because of aggressive lobbying from the home-building and real estate industries, reports Melanie Hicken (@melhicken) for Reuters. Arizona, Texas, Alabama, Kansas and Hawaii have enacted laws in the past four years forbidding cities and towns from requiring sprinklers in new homes. A Reuters review of lobbying records from those states found that industry groups grossly outspent fire sprinkler advocates.

“With no limit, Virginia gun sales shoot through roof” — The Virginian-Pilot

As of July 1, Virginia residents are no longer limited to one handgun purchase a year, and buyers have been taking advantage of the newfound flexibility, reports Joanne Kimberlin for The Virginian-Pilot. Background checks for firearms transactions spiked to 29,072 in July, a 29 percent increase from the same month last year. “The actual number of guns sold could be much higher,” Kimberlin writes. “Background checks are required only for firearms bought from licensed dealers, and one check is good for any number of guns, as long as they’re part of the same transaction.” Guns from Virginia often end up being used in neighboring states with stricter gun laws, a source of tension. “Virginia is the top out-of-state source for crime guns in New York City. By repealing that law, you just took a step backwards,” John Feinblatt, chief policy adviser for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, told the paper.

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.