The State Worker

Why are taxpayers on the hook when government workers misbehave?

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, says there is “no way taxpayers should be on the hook” for sexual harassment settlement costs.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, says there is “no way taxpayers should be on the hook” for sexual harassment settlement costs. lsterling@sacbee.com

When The Bee reported Friday that the state had paid out more than $25 million in the last three fiscal years to settle sexual harassment-related cases – most of it taxpayer money – many readers wanted to know why.

“This is the most disgusting use of taxpayer dollars we’ve ever seen,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “There is no way taxpayers should be on the hook for this.”

Coupal said he believed that perpetrators should pay for their own misconduct in the workplace, but he acknowledged that it probably would take a legislative change to shift the burden back on offending employees.

For now, according to state law, a public entity is required to defend an employee in a civil case over actions taken within the scope of his or her employment. But the public entity also may refuse to provide for the individual’s defense if the actions were not within the scope of the job, or he or she acted – or failed to act – because of fraud, corruption or actual malice.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office noted that, if there is a conflict between the agency and the individual defendant named in a suit, the AG’s Office usually will represent the agency. The agency then may retain and pay for outside counsel for the accused worker, or choose not to defend the individual at all.

The Bee identified a few instances where individual defendants were assessed punitive damages, to be paid out of their own pockets, but that situation is “very rare,” according to the AG’s Office.

In sexual harassment cases, the agency being sued faces its own scrutiny over what it knew, when it knew it – and what it did about it. In one case highlighted by The Bee, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was forced to pay out $10 million to settle a case involving the alleged sexual abuse of young males in a youth correctional facility.

The role of taxpayers in these settlements is getting a closer look. Earlier this month, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill that would require the Senate and Assembly to seek reimbursement for any sexual harassment settlements paid by the Legislature “when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing by a legislator.”

AB 1750 will be considered by the Assembly this spring.

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom

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