The State Worker

She participated in a nepotism audit. Then she lost her job in California government

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Socorro Tongco’s career investigating fraud in the workplace didn’t prepare her for the moment in November when her bosses fired her and alleged she misused her time as a state employee.

That was a shock she couldn’t understand, except in the context of information she’d given two years earlier to auditors investigating alleged misconduct by executives in her own office.

“It felt surreal,” she said. “I literally sat there and accepted the document, and they walked me out of the building.”

Tongco, 41, now is suing her former employer in Alameda County Superior Court, charging that she was fired because she cooperated with an investigation into alleged nepotism at California’s Department of Industrial Relations. The department enforces state workers’ compensation, wage and workplace injury laws.

Her union, meanwhile, is pressing the California State Auditor’s office to disclose the investigation that Tongco believes led to her dismissal.

Auditor Elaine Howle’s office has refused to acknowledge that it exists, although state officials in other public documents describe her investigation into the Department of Industrial Relations.

Howle has authority to withhold some reports from public review, but her decision is disappointing to the union attorneys trying to bring it into the open.

“The purpose of the (state auditor) is to act as an independent external auditor. Yet it is taking the position that it has unfettered authority to suppress the findings of its investigations,” said attorney Jason Jasmine, who is representing the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association.

The conflict renews attention on the March retirement of former Department of Industrial Relations Executive Director Christine Baker. She announced her retirement just after the auditor’s office briefly on its website announced a plan to release a report on her department.

A spokeswoman for the auditor’s office told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time that it had an “error” on its website that week. The auditor’s office did not elaborate.

The auditor’s office, the Department of Industrial Relations and the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency each declined to comment on Tongco’s lawsuit.

“The law prohibits us from disclosing any information about an investigation unless we publish a report,” auditor spokeswoman Margarita Fernandez said. “Thus, I can neither confirm nor deny whether this office is conducting, has conducted or has completed the investigation described in your inquiry.”

The state in its notice dismissing Tongco from her job acknowledges that the auditor was investigating the Department of Industrial Relations in 2017.

The notice says the state’s decision to dismiss her stems in part from unprofessional emails it discovered when Baker ordered a review of employee communications to respond to “an ongoing investigation by the California State Auditor’s office.”

Some of the emails show that Tongco discussed what should have been confidential information with her colleagues, according her notice of adverse action.

State officials also alleged she had a romantic relationship with a colleague that she hid from supervisors, conducted personal business on state time and misled her boss about her requests to work from home on a couple of occasions.

“DIR cannot tolerate your dishonesty, lack of judgment, disclosure of confidential information and excessive misuse of state time and resources,” reads a letter signed by Andre Schoorl, the department’s acting director.

Tongco contends that department leaders targeted her because they knew she met with and cooperated with Howle’s team. Tongco’s lawsuit said she communicated with one of Howle’s auditors by email and text messages in 2015 and in 2016.

Tongco in her lawsuit says auditors asked her questions about Baker’s daughter, who also worked for the Department of Industrial Relations at the time.

Tongco “responded honestly on all accounts,” the lawsuit says.

Her attorneys at the Mastagni Holstedt firm in Sacramento refer to the review of employee emails that Baker directed as an “email dump” that was intended to root out whistleblowers.

The State Auditor’s office does not disclose information about its sources. It has an exemption in the Public Records Act that allows it withhold investigative records. Both of those policies are intended to protect whistleblowers.

State employees who are punished after cooperating with audits can appeal discipline and present evidence that that they participated in activities that state law protects.

The auditor also is not required to publish completed audits. Her office can share information with state executives, who may act on her findings.

In July, the auditor released a twice-a-year report on state employee misconduct that included references to “nonpublic reports.” A summary of them said the auditor found evidence of “nepotism, bad-faith hires, improper promotions and other misconduct by executive management within two state entities.”

The State Auditor’s office rejected a Public Records Act request from The Sacramento Bee seeking the audit of the Department of Industrial Relations. The auditor’s office also rejected a similar request from Tongco’s union.

Tongco’s attorneys and attorneys from the state had a conference earlier this month to discuss her dismissal. They did not resolve her complaint.

Tongco said she tried to keep her composure as she walked out of the office on the day she was fired and in the weeks afterward. Her dismissal clouded her holidays, with her family opting for a “no gift” Christmas.

“I felt like was a failure in some sense, being a victim of retaliation, but I felt I’d be a failure as a mother if I broke down,” she said.

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