OCTOTILLO WELLS STATE PARK (CBS13) — It’s a long and often dirty drive. Two hours east of San Diego, near the Salton Sea is the Ocotillo Wells State Park.
The 85,000 acres of dusty landscape is a favorite destination for off-roaders.
Joe Hopkins is an environmental scientist there. He’s raised red flags with the state parks department about the growing devastation of desert habitat.
“I’m sickened by the kind of destruction that you’re seeing here,” he said. “You’re paying for that.”
Signs prohibit open riding, but Joe says, “It should have been designated trails the whole time. There was just no enforcement.”
He says no one listened. Even worse, he says supervisors retaliated against him for trying to enforce state law, threatening “corrective action” against him.
“This park is a disgrace in the state park system,” he said.
In August 2011, he blew the whistle on the parks situation with the California Department of Justice. He sent emails and documents — evidence he says of gross mismanagement by parks officials.
“There were numerous things to be investigated at all different levels, and no investigation was forthcoming on any of those,” Joe said.
The allegations included ignoring laws designed to preserve and protect California’s natural resources, such as historical Native American sites.
“I gave them enough information to get them started, but if they were going to follow up, they were going to have to talk to me, or people that I knew, and none of us were ever contacted.” Joe said.
Then scandals hit the parks department.
Secret vacation buyouts.
Falsified payroll codes.
$54 million in hidden money.
Convicted felons in positions of leadership.
Multiple sexual-harassment allegations.
Wendy Musell is a lawyer representing several clients who are suing the parks department.
“They did nothing until it became front page news that $54 million was hidden,” Musell said.
Musell says top officials at the parks department were notified that tens of millions of dollars were hidden months before the $54 million slush fund was revealed in newspaper headlines.
“When they hear there is unlawful conduct of this level, they are required to take action,” Musell said. “That action did not occur.”
In the wake of the scandals, the DOJ and parks department both set up email addresses for whistleblowers.
Joe used them immediately, sending dozens of emails and documents trying to stand up for California’s state parks.
“No response whatsoever,” Joe said, “other than an automatic response from state parks.”
The DOJ tells us they’ve received 190 emails, but wouldn’t say how many responses they’ve sent.
Our requests for copies of those emails were denied, with the DOJ claiming they were all part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
We were denied on-air camera interviews with both agencies. Both responded by email.
Parks would only respond by email, saying it “typically did not respond to the emails directly but referred matters to Department officials for further review and potential action.”
The DOJ said “The Department of Justice carefully reviewed all emails sent to its parks investigation email address… our office has an ongoing criminal investigation and therefore cannot provide any additional comment.”
Gov. Jerry Brown appointed a new state parks director last November — a move designed to restore the confidence and trust of Californians in the parks department.
We were not allowed to talk to him to get answers.
Meanwhile, Joe and other whistleblowers have mounting questions.
“How are you restoring trust? How are you bringing faith back in the parks? How are you fixing the system? You’re not.”
In recent days, two groups have filed a lawsuit. They say parks officials are not protecting more than 1,200 archaeological sites at Ocotillo Wells from off-roaders.