Rule change helped thief return to state of California payroll

Published: Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Sep. 5, 2013 - 8:25 am

Two questions removed from most civil service job applications three years ago allowed an embezzler to return to state government work after she went to prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from another agency.

Officials at the High-Speed Rail Authority eventually found out about Carey Renee Moore's sensational criminal past, fired her for lying on her application and tried to keep her from receiving unemployment checks. But Moore appealed and won the benefits, noting that she didn't lie about her past – no one ever asked her about it.

Moore told the judge hearing her unemployment appeal that the rail agency fired her to avoid embarrassment for the controversial multibillion-dollar project that has become one of Gov. Jerry Brown's signature projects.

"I get it … the High-Speed Rail Authority is highly in the media," Moore said during the October hearing before Administrative Law Judge Katie Zwinski, according to a recording. "I think they want me to go away."

High-Speed Rail press secretary Lisa Marie Alley declined to answer Moore's charge or to explain how the state rehired someone who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government.

"It's a personnel matter," Alley said. "We have no comment."

Attempts to reach Moore by telephone and by visiting her Natomas home were unsuccessful.

Moore went by the name Carey Renee Aceves in 2005 when she worked as a Department of Child Support Services procurement officer earning $62,000 per year.

The details of her crimes were front page news in The Sacramento Bee. Over the course of about 15 months, she embezzled $320,000 by using her position to purchase, among other things, a television, a hot tub and gazebo and electronics, pornographic videos, handcuffs, chains and whips. Moore falsified records to cover up the purchases and sold some items to buy a $65,000 Lexus.

As state investigators closed in, Moore transferred in early 2007 to a job with the State Board of Equalization. She was arrested on Feb. 1 that year.

About two weeks later, she turned in a one-sentence resignation letter citing "personal reasons" for leaving.

Board of Equalization officials had started the process to terminate Moore after learning of the arrest, department spokesman Jaime Garza said, but she resigned before the action became final.

That move kept Moore's personnel file free of any record of her crime and left open her rights to come back to state service.

By law, the agency had to accept Moore's resignation and couldn't put any documentation of her crimes in her official personnel file, said Sacramento workplace attorney Paul Chan.

"It allows the employee to say in good faith, 'I resigned," Chan said. "And the agency doesn't proceed. It's accomplished its goal to get rid of the employee. So when you resign, it's like (the disciplinary action) magically never happened."

In October 2007, Moore pleaded no contest to a felony grand theft charge and served two years in state prison.

But soon after she was released from prison, a policy decision by the State Personnel Board gave her an opening to come back as a state employee.

The board voted to take two questions off the state's job application: "Have you ever been convicted by any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence?" and "Have you ever been convicted by any court of a felony?"

The questions were moved to supplemental forms for jobs requiring background checks – law enforcement officers and tax auditors, for example.

Many state jobs don't involve access to sensitive information or state funds, the personnel board reasoned, so applicants for those positions don't need to be asked about their past. The board also worried the questions could discriminate against some minority groups.

"The form was revised because the state never intended every applicant to answer those questions," said Pat McConahay, spokeswoman for the State Personnel Board.

But Chan said the move was ill-advised. "I think it's a bad idea," he said. "If you apply for a job flipping burgers, you're asked if you've been convicted of a criminal offense. And what did the state do? The state said, 'We're going to strip it down.' And this case is a perfect example of what can happen."

Moore's mother, a state personnel officer, received a memo announcing the application changes and passed the news to her daughter.

Now divorced, Moore applied with the high-speed rail agency under a different name than she used when she was arrested. No one asked whether she had a criminal record.

"I wasn't going to get a job if I said it," Moore told the unemployment insurance appeals judge last October. "I went through State Personnel Board language to make sure there was no reason I couldn't or shouldn't do this."

On a cover letter and job applications, Moore described her time away from the state as a "four-year voluntary resignation" to fulfill "family obligations" due to "personal family circumstances."

She listed former supervisors, but left blank spaces for their telephone numbers or filled them in with "retired."

Rail agency officials hired Moore in December 2011. She got a positive review, a raise and a promotion. Her job gave her very limited access to state credit cards, she told Zwinski, to make travel arrangements for rail officials.

But Moore's past surfaced several months later when the Franchise Tax Board attached her paycheck to begin collecting $373,420.75 in restitution.

In March 2012, a rail official asked Moore about the wage garnishment. According to a copy of a dismissal notice, Moore said, "It was for taxes I owed while working at the Department of Child Support Services."

A state record shows that Deputy Director of Human Resources Wendy Boykins fired Moore on July 9, 2012, for lying to secure her job.

Moore filed an appeal of the dismissal with the State Personnel Board, then withdrew it. Meanwhile, she fought for her unemployment benefits.

Rail officials contended Moore shouldn't receive payments because she was fired for lying on her job application, but Judge Zwinski said the agency didn't prove its case. The department didn't send a representative to the appeal hearing.

"The testimony or statement of one individual stating they did in fact ask (Moore) about a felony conviction or about her past may have resulted in a different outcome in this matter," Zwinski wrote in her Oct. 15 decision. "The employer presented no such evidence."

The judge said her ruling wasn't a comment on the rail agency's right to fire Moore after learning about her background. But since she wasn't terminated for her most recent work, Zwinski said Moore qualified for unemployment benefits.

It's not clear whether Moore received payments or for how long if she did. Unlike the withdrawn appeal of her firing and her successful challenge to receive denied benefits, unemployment insurance disbursements and recipients' names are not public record.

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043. Amy Gebert of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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