The State Worker

Nepotism investigations spur questions for California state workers: Where is it happening?

Parents often want their children to follow in their footsteps, but in state government that can sometimes be a problem.

A recently published state auditor’s report detailed a department director’s improper efforts to get her daughter hired and promoted in the department, renewing attention on nepotism in California state government.

The topic has surfaced over the last two years in relation to a nepotism investigation at the Board of Equalization, where about 800 of the tax-collecting agency’s 4,200 employees were found to be related to one another.

The issue likely will continue to pop up more frequently than it used to, in part because former Gov. Jerry Brown expanded the State Personnel Board’s authority to investigate nepotism and publish reports on its findings.

Working with a relative is not in itself illegal, and the state is not allowed to prevent coworkers from getting married. But the state has had laws since the 1930s requiring hiring to be based on merit. Problems arise when employees try to circumvent the state’s extensive processes for hiring and promotion.

“When that process isn’t followed for whatever reason, and hiring isn’t done based on merit, it’s bad for the state, bad for taxpayers and unfair to applicants,” said State Personnel Board Executive Officer Suzanne Ambrose. “Nepotism policies are designed to prevent someone from getting an unfair advantage, either in getting hired or advancing in the workplace, simply because a relative by blood or marriage works for the same department or agency.”

CalHR defines nepotism as “the practice of an employee using his or her influence or power to aid or hinder another in the employment setting because of a personal relationship.”

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The relationships considered close under its policy are those by blood, marriage, adoption and cohabitation, but can include friendships or other relationships that create conflicts between a person’s private interests and their public obligations. State workers looking to report nepotism to the personnel board can do so on the website of its compliance review unit.

Each of the state’s approximately 150 departments is required to have a nepotism policy in place and to enforce it. CalHR acknowledges that departments may have different needs: Departments with “small offices in hard-to-recruit areas” might adopt less stringent policies while law enforcement agencies might need very strict policies to protect safety, according to a nepotism policy guidance document from the department.

The focus on nepotism at the Board of Equalization prompted the state to craft an especially rigorous policy for the department that took over most of the board’s responsibilities in 2017, the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration. Employees there are prohibited from advocating for friends or loved ones when jobs are open.

The personnel board conducts regular audits of each state department’s personnel policies roughly every three years, including their nepotism policies.

Enough reports that those policies have been violated can prompt a separate special investigation. At the Board of Equalization, anonymous whistleblowers communicated their concerns over several years.

“Still pretty much a family affair at the BOE. Just got out of the elevators full of all related family members,” read a March 2017 message from one anonymous whistleblower.

“We call it the 3 f’s for job requirements. You gotta be friends, family or friends of family to get hired,” read another message.

The State Personnel Board is in the midst of its own investigation into the mother-daughter relationship that was the focus of the recent auditor’s report, according to the audit.

The auditor doesn’t name the subject of the investigation, but publicly available information suggests it is Christine Baker, former director of the Department of Industrial Relations.

The revelations in the auditor’s report came as no surprise to some readers of The Sacramento Bee’s state worker coverage, who posted dozens of reactions on social media and called to ask about relationships among coworkers.

The extent of nepotism in California state government is not well understood, since it typically surfaces only when complaints have been lodged. States have a range of nepotism rules, with some spelling out exactly how closely employees may be related by blood and others leaving the specifics out of state law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nepotism is not illegal in private employment.

“There aren’t laws that ban it — so nepotism occurs and it’s not uncommon,” said Gage Dungy, a Sacramento-based attorney with law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore who advises local governments on personnel policies, including nepotism.

Even when it is legal, the way it looks can undermine confidence in government, Dungy said.

“It gives the implication of an abuse of power,” he said. “Whether or not that’s unlawful is one thing; whether or not it’s deemed inappropriate by the public is another.”

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