The State Worker

Incomplete records hamper personnel audit of state’s civil-rights watchdog

Sacramento Bee

California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing will need to improve its record keeping following an investigation into several years of department personnel actions, an inquiry triggered by the housing department’s unlawful promotion of an employee.

In a report released Friday, State Personnel Board investigators blamed missing personnel paperwork for hampering the inquiry. The board’s report noted that it had received allegations that Fair Employment staff had shredded personnel documents. The shredding allegedly occurred sometime between the board’s January 2014 order to review several years of Fair Employment’s personnel records and the inquiry’s start the following month. Investigators were “unable to find any evidence to substantiate this allegation,” the report states.

Fair Employment and Housing, which investigates discrimination claims, came under scrutiny after the Personnel Board found earlier this year that managers had manipulated the merit system to promote an unqualified employee, despite the misgivings of a human resources staffer. Investigators concluded that managers planned to claim the promotion was a good-faith error if questioned about it, which would have allowed the action to stand.

The employee lost her promotion but kept the money she earned while in the higher position because, the board said, she had applied for the promotion in good faith. But the managers’ acts prompted a second investigation that found the department’s second-in-command gave contradictory statements about the promotion.

Although then-department director Phyllis Cheng was never named in those reports, the personnel shenanigans cast a pall on an administration already hobbled by budget cuts and a 2-year-old computer system that made work more difficult instead of easier. Last December, reports surfaced that Fair Employment sent government-employee discrimination claims to the governor before acting on them.

Cheng stepped down in October to become a partner with a law firm in Los Angeles.

Friday’s report was supposed to review Fair Employment’s personnel documents back to 2009, but the department told investigators that it “did not possess any appointment files prior to Jan. 1, 2012, nor any (executive) files prior to Jan. 1, 2011,” the report states. The department discarded files in accordance with the state’s record-retention rules, officials told investigators. But the investigation notes that the laws require the department to hold on to more records than it had.

The available records for the last three years were woefully incomplete, according to the report. During that period, the department made 84 hires, transfers or other appointments. Many lacked documentation justifying the appointment. Furthermore, the department “failed to provide probationary reports for any of the 84 appointments.”

Without evidence of more unlawful promotions or hiring practices, the report criticized Fair Employment’s lax record keeping and recommended the department submit written plans to the board about how it will fix those problems.

“The Department appreciates SPB’s thorough review,” Fair Employment spokeswoman Fahizah Alim said, “and we look forward to working on a corrective action plan that includes updating our hiring policies and procedures related to maintaining appointment records and completing probationary reports.”

State Personnel Board Executive Director Suzi Ambrose declined to comment on the report.

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