The State Worker

California tells employees: Don’t talk to media

Two state employees, one a top elected CalPERS official and the other a nameless state worker bee, both recently committed a cardinal sin: They talked to the media.

On Wednesday, the board of California’s gigantic government retirement system publicly reprimanded one of its own, J.J. Jelincic, for telling a pension-industry publication that its new chief investment officer, longtime California Public Employees’ Retirement System investments manager Ted Eliopoulos, is unqualified for the job.

“He doesn’t have the temperament or the management skills,” Jelincic said in a Sept. 29 Pensions & Investments story about the hiring.

And he didn’t stop there. Eliopolous played favorites with staff, Jelincic said, listened too much to outside consultants and made poor investment decisions.

Because he’s technically a CalPERS employee, Jelincic didn’t have a vote on the hire. In fact, he worked under Eliopoulos in the fund’s investment shop for about five years. Then CalPERS put Jelincic on full-time paid leave in 2012 to tend to board business.

On Wednesday, board President Rob Feckner said in a prepared statement that the comments were “unfortunate and a breach of board governance policy of civility and courtesy as well as a breach of the CalPERS core values.”

The board voted for Eliopolous, Feckner noted, 11-0. He advised Jelincic to “use his ‘boardsmanship’ hat when speaking to the media.”

Jelincic said later, “I”m not sure what the hell it meant other than they didn’t want me talking to the press.”

The Jelincic case is high-profile, but in offices, commissions and departments throughout the state, employees are told they shouldn’t talk to the media. Leave it to the pros. Avoid making unsanctioned contacts and comments that can give high-ups more heartburn than a handful of jalapeños with a battery-acid chaser.

Two weeks ago, for example, this column called the California Department of Transportation about a planned barbecue and golf outing at Land Park after a concerned employee made The Bee aware of it.

Even though the column concluded the outing didn’t use state resources or time, division chief Ray Zhang sent out an email “plea” to staff.

“Let me or ... managers know” of concerns about activities “before taking the matter to the externals,” Zhang wrote. “Let me tell you, even though the Bee article made our event ‘famous,’ I did not enjoy and appreciate it being in the news at all.”

Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said that his department, like most others in state government, assigns people like him to talk with the press. Caltrans also has an outside hotline for employees to bring up concerns over, say, a barbecue and golf outing, if they’re uncomfortable raising the issue with management. Sometimes the concerns are with management.

“It just gives employees another avenue,” Rocco said.

The unstated conclusion, whether you’re a top dog at CalPERS or an unknown state cubicle dweller: Public employees shouldn’t be public.

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.