Questions about missing money and documents at Clinton State Park have state ready to investigate
photo by: Nick Krug
After being presented with evidence of accounting irregularities, leaders with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism have said they’re launching an investigation into cash-handling practices at the state park near Lawrence. But already the effort is facing a roadblock: The public documents that could prove the case have mysteriously turned up missing.
“They were stolen by someone for some reason,” Brad Loveless, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism told the Journal-World in an interview. “And that is not typical. We don’t lose records, so that is kind of a dilemma.”
The missing documents, though, won’t stop the department from bringing in an “outside set of eyes” to investigate what documents do remain. Those documents show evidence that placards were issued to campers who used the self-pay station to pay for their nightly camping fees, but those payments don’t show up on a manifest that is used to account for the cash that is removed from the self-pay box and placed into the safe at the state park.
Linda Lanterman, state parks director for the department, said she was in the process of hiring an individual who would conduct an investigation and an audit of the self-pay system.
“We are going in there,” Lanterman said. “We can go in there and turn it upside down.”
Members of the public put thousands of dollars in cash — sometimes in a single weekend — into the iron self pay box near the entrance of Clinton Lake. A multimonth investigation by the Journal-World has found park leaders can’t prove all that money is making its way into state coffers.
The allegations of cash-handling problems, though, aren’t new. Among the set of documents given to the Journal-World is a July 2017 letter from an employee of Clinton State Park alleging that in the summer of 2016, there “was all out war on the park’s cash-based system.” Among the documents provided to the Journal-World was a fax transmission receipt showing that the letter had been faxed to a regional supervisor in the state park system. Lanterman, though, said the letter never made it to her, despite the letter being addressed to her.
Lanterman and other park leaders, though, acknowledged they had verbally heard of some concerns and had found some irregularities in the cash-handling system in past years. However, they did not determine that it was the result of anyone stealing the money, although one park supervisor was concerned about that possibility enough that he wanted to use marked bills to try to determine whether a staff member was taking the money.
That sting operation never was authorized by the department; instead, several internal procedures were changed at the park, Jeff Bender, the regional supervisor who oversees Clinton State Park, said.
The partial documents provided to the Journal-World raise questions about the whereabouts of at least 18 payments in a single month of 2016. The Journal-World has more than 100 other placards that could be checked against manifests — if those documents hadn’t turned up missing. That information, along with the 2017 letter, has the department taking another look at the issue.
“We are working to make the system better,” said Loveless, who has been in charge of the department only since January, when he was appointed by Gov. Laura Kelly. “And the last step is when a letter like this raises questions, in new ways that we weren’t aware of before, we’ll look at it. We’ll look at it with independent eyes to determine if there is more that we should be doing.”
The Iron Ranger
The heavy cash box that sits near the entrance to Clinton State Park has a name among park employees. They call it the Iron Ranger. It does a job that there aren’t enough human rangers to do. It collects money 24 hours a day.
At some point in the 1990s, the state started offering self-pay stations for park visitors. It was a way for honest park visitors to pay their camping or entrance fees even when the office or the gatehouse of the state park wasn’t open.
The concept is simple enough. The self-pay stations include a stack of cash envelopes and permits, with each permit having a printed identification number. A visitor fills out the permit, puts the required money in the envelope, detaches a portion of the permit and puts the envelope and the rest of the permit in the “Iron Ranger.” The part of the permit kept by visitors is put on their vehicle’s windshield or on a post at their campsite to prove that they have paid.
Park employees empty the Iron Ranger of the envelopes and the permits, and they fill out a manifest that records, by permit number, each envelope that was removed from the box and the amount of money that was in each envelope.
In late 2018, the Journal-World received a stack of documents from an individual who has requested not to be named out of fear of retribution. The documents were of two types: 1) copies of the manifest for periods during 2016; 2) the permits or placards that hung from the poles next to campsites.
The placards that hung on the poles next to the campsites included permit numbers. Those placards were evidence that the user of the campsite had gone through the self-pay process. However, the corresponding manifests for the time period in question did not list many of the permits.
The fact that the permits weren’t showing up on the manifests led to concerns that the money inside those envelopes was being pocketed and never showing up in the state’s system.
When the Journal-World asked about the system used to collect the money at the Iron Ranger, park officials confirmed that most often it was just a single employee who would go and collect the money. When asked how the department could be assured that an employee wouldn’t pocket envelopes that clearly had cash in them, they acknowledged that a better practice would be to have two employees go to the Iron Ranger. Staffing limitations, though, make it difficult to spare two employees.
“At some point, you have to trust your people,” Bender, the regional supervisor, said. “But if it looks like there were a lot of discrepancies in 2016, I would say we are going to be looking at this again.”
The Journal-World initially focused on the month of July 2016. A review found that at least 18 permits weren’t showing up on the manifest during that month. A cursory review of other months in the late summer and fall of 2016 found at least 20 other permits weren’t showing up on manifest sheets.
At that point, the Journal-World decided to file a Kansas Open Records request to get a more extensive set of permit manifest documents. The Journal-World sought all such manifests from April 1, 2016, to Dec. 31, 2016. A few days after the request was made, Lanterman called the Journal-World and said her employees had gone to retrieve the documents only to find that they were missing.
Lanterman inquired whether the Journal-World’s source had stolen the documents. Lanterman was told there wasn’t evidence of that. All of the manifests possessed by the Journal-World were copies — not original documents — for instance. The Journal-World, however, did question its source about how the documents were obtained. The source said they did not possess any original copies of the manifests. Upon further questioning by the Journal-World, state park leaders acknowledged that the manifests, for weeks at a time, would hang on a clipboard next to the copy machine in the state park’s Clinton office.
All Lanterman is saying now is that she’s confident the records weren’t simply lost or misplaced.
“On the documents, somebody got them out of the park office,” Lanterman said. “It would be foolish for me to say who I think did it.”
The Journal-World did provide the state with a copy of all the documents the newspaper had received.
War on the cash system
Chris Phelps does think that an employee has been taking money from the park’s cash system. Phelps was a maintenance worker at the park for a little more than five years before retiring last year. Phelps wrote the July 2017 letter to Lanterman.
In the letter, which he signed, he lists the names of multiple people in the department who had been made aware of the discrepancies between the permits and the manifests. The letter talks about incidents in 2014 and 2015 where suspicions were raised that cash was missing. The letter spells out who in the department was told about those concerns.
The letter, though, said the alleged activity came to a head in 2016, during a time when the park was without a full-time park manager. Phelps described it as “all out war on the park’s cash-based system.” Phelps and another employee took the concerns to the new park manager, Nick Birdsong, once he arrived in the fall of 2016.
Phelps said Birdsong took the complaints seriously. Birdsong, who like most park managers was a certified law enforcement officer, wanted to set up a sting operation to try to catch an employee in the act. Bender, the regional supervisor, confirmed that Birdsong wanted to use marked bills and other methods to ascertain whether money was being taken from the box. Bender, though, said that operation was never approved. He said there were “too many holes” in the case, and he hadn’t seen enough evidence that pointed at any single individual.
Instead, Bender directed Birdsong to review the procedures that were in place for cash handling and tighten them where needed.
After seeing no change in the situation, Phelps wrote the letter in July 2017, even acknowledging in the letter that he was worried that coming forward might get him fired. Instead, nothing happened. Phelps said no one ever contacted him about the letter or the allegations in it.
“I was a little disappointed but not surprised,” Phelps said when reached by the Journal-World. “I actually would have been surprised if they had responded to it.”
Lanterman said she was certain she had never seen the letter until it was presented to her by the Journal-World, although she does acknowledge having heard of some less specific concerns about the self-pay process at Clinton.
“Anybody who knows me knows that if I would have received this, I would have yelled about it,” Lanterman said. “They would have heard from me about this.”
Bender says he can’t recall whether he ever had received a copy of the letter. He said he was aware of allegations in 2014 and 2015. He said they were investigated both times. In 2014, he said it first appeared that there were about 25 permits that were unaccounted for. Further investigation found that there were only two. In 2015, though, the investigation did find questions about 20 permits. He said some procedural changes were made to the cash handling process at that time to close up some “loopholes.” Bender said he did not want to disclose what those loopholes included.
As for the July 2017 letter, it has a fax confirmation receipt on the top of it. That receipt shows it was faxed to the Wichita regional office for the parks and wildlife department. Alan Stark, the regional manager of the Wichita office, said he remembered receiving a phone call in the summer of 2017 making the same allegations that were included in the letter. However, he said he couldn’t recall whether he also received a fax. He said he was certain that he passed along the verbal concerns to Lanterman, who indicated she and Bender were aware of some cash-handling concerns and were looking into the matter.
How much money?
The state’s system makes it difficult to know how much money might be missing from the park’s self-pay system. In 2016, for instance, the amount a camper would have paid at Clinton State Park for a single night ranged from $8 to $26. That means the 18 missing permits in July 2016 could have had a value ranging from $144 to $468 for the month.
Phelps’ 2017 letter alleged the amounts were higher during some periods. The letter states that Birdsong, the park manager at the time, told Phelps that a review near the Labor Day weekend of 2016 found about $400 in cash missing during a single week. Birdsong did not return a phone call from the Journal-World seeking comment.
The Journal-World did find evidence of missing payments in multiple other months in 2016, but without access to the now-missing manifests, it is difficult to produce an accurate number of missing payments.
Significant amounts of cash are received at Clinton State Park. State park officials said Clinton collected about $750,000 a year in fees from park users. When asked how much of that money came in the form of cash — rather than checks or credit cards — department leaders said their accounting system didn’t make that information readily available.
But Dale Schwieger, a former park manager at Clinton who now is a manager for state parks at Melvern and Pomona, gave an indication. He said cash payments have declined quite a bit in recent years as more people have started paying online with credit cards. But the amounts of cash are still significant. During the peak of his career, it was common for a park to collect $20,000 over a holiday weekend. Now, the amount of cash is closer to $3,000 on a busy weekend.
Phelps said, at this point, it is anyone’s guess how much money may have gone missing over the years.
“I don’t have a sense of how much money it is, but I think it is way more than what they think it is,” Phelps said.
Lanterman said she already was looking into a camera system to install at the self-pay station at Clinton. Perhaps the biggest change, though, is that two people are now going to collect money from the self-pay box at Clinton, Bender said. When asked whether that practice would be required at other parks across the state, Secretary Loveless said it seemed like a good procedure but that further review would be needed to determine how that could be accomplished at each park.
It is not clear whether missing permits are a problem at other state parks, but the system at Clinton is similar to the system used at all the state parks.
Technology may end up being the ultimate solution to the problem. The state has looked into electronic self-pay stations. They could be similar to the pay stations in many cities that operate self-pay parking lots, for example. Such a system would create an electronic trail for every permit issued at the park. But the systems aren’t cheap. Schwieger said some electronic self-pay stations could be bought for about $5,000, but there was concern whether they could stand up to the Kansas elements. Sturdier stations may cost around $20,000, he said.
Loveless said such systems and other possible changes would be examined. He said the park system has a strong motive to fix any such problems, even for reasons that go beyond ensuring the integrity of public money. The park system largely is self-funded through user fees, and the department already is facing budget crunches.
“We have so many hundreds of thousands of Kansans who depend on this resource,” Loveless said. “We know we have to be good stewards of what we have. That includes the land and the revenue we have to support all these facilities and programs.”
Loveless said he also wanted to create a culture where employees felt comfortable bringing forward concerns to their supervisors or even the supervisors of their supervisors. He said he hoped Phelps’ letter was a sign that department employees did feel that way.
Phelps said he’s not sure that is the case. He said he never felt his concerns received enough attention or sparked enough review.
“I just wanted it to be investigated,” Phelps said. “It was maddening that this was going on and I felt like it was being ignored.”