A high-level government official makes an embarrassing remark. News coverage zooms in on the bigwig, the errant words, the political fallout.
But what about the organization underneath? What about the employees who see the official’s picture grinning down on them each day from their office walls? How are they affected?
Take last week’s Board of Equalization controversy du jour when movie star Rob Lowe accused a board member of using an anti-Semitic slur during a private meeting last summer about the actor’s pending tax appeal on a home sale.
Lowe said the board member, Jerome Horton, asked whether he had “Jewed down” contractors who worked on the house. Other people were in the room, including Lowe’s wife, who is Jewish.
The five-member Board of Equalization is the nation’s only publicly elected tax board. It’s 4,400 employees collect $60 billion annually in taxes and fees.
The board, which among its other duties hears income tax disputes, eventually voted 3-2 to lighten Lowe’s tax burden by more than a half-million dollars.
Then Horton, who dissented, fired off a heat-seeking email that accused his colleagues of wrongly shoveling public funds to Lowe. Lowe then launched his own email disclosing Horton’s anti-Semitic remarks. His lawyer threatened to sue Horton for implying that Lowe ripped off taxpayers.
The story blended celebrity, ethnic tension, power and slap-your-forehead insensitivity into a tasty concoction for national and international media. At least two outlets in Israel picked up the story.
Meanwhile, the BOE’s 4,400 staff keep working, collecting and processing $60 billion in sales and other taxes each year. What do they think about the Lowe blow?
The higher you go, the more immune you are.
State employee David Miller, on one of the lessons learned from the Rob Lowe-Jerome Horton controversy.
We asked more than a dozen employees outside the department’s downtown Sacramento headquarters. None would talk on the record. Understandable. It’s not exactly a career-advancing move to publicly diss your boss’s boss’s boss.
Other state employees have felt more free to weigh in, however.
David Miller, a Department of Toxic Substances Control employee for 30 years, said he’s seen plenty of high-level hijinks. The lower-level fallout, he said, is always the same: a demoralized workforce. Shaken confidence in leadership. A stain on state government that also tarnishes the image of state employees.
It also confirms, Miller said, suspicions among “the worker bees that the higher you go, the more immune you are.
“I’ve seen people get disciplined for copying a garage sale sign at work,” said Miller, who is a scientists’ union representative. “But if you do something that is harmful to the entire organization, and you’re high enough up, there’s no real consequence.”
Horton probably personally offended some of his own employees. There’s little doubt, Miller said, that some of the BOE’s employees are Jewish.
Horton has said Lowe “misrepresented the facts” about the conversation to get even for Horton’s vote against the tax break. He has not apologized to Lowe – or to BOE employees.