Editorials

Secret investigation weakens trust in state auditor

California State Auditor Elaine Howle discusses the audit her office did on the California State University system during a joint legislative hearing in August 2017.
California State Auditor Elaine Howle discusses the audit her office did on the California State University system during a joint legislative hearing in August 2017. Associated Press

What in tarnation is going on at the California State Auditor’s office?

State Auditor Elaine Howle – responsible for rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in state government – refuses to confirm the existence of a report on her investigation into nepotism allegations at the Department of Industrial Relations. As the Bee’s Adam Ashton reports, the investigation was brought to light by Socorro Tongco, who says DIR fired her in retaliation for cooperating with the auditor’s inquiry.

It’s hard to evaluate the claims because Howle’s office won’t acknowledge the investigation’s existence. But we know it exists because documents from other state agencies refer to it. In fact, the auditor’s own website had announced plans to release details of the investigation. That is, before the auditor’s office started denying its existence.

Confused yet?

The auditor’s secret investigation concerned allegations that DIR’s former director, Christine Baker, showed favoritism toward her brother and daughter, who both worked in the department. In 2018, Baker “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.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny whether this office is conducting, has conducted or has completed the investigation described in your inquiry,” the auditor’s spokeswoman told The Bee, sounding more like a CIA operative than a representative of an office purporting to “improve California government by assuring the performance, accountability, and transparency that its citizens deserve.”

Tongco, a former fraud investigator at DIR, can confirm the report’s existence. She says it’s why DIR fired her. According to The Bee: “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 says she “responded honestly.”

But while the auditor conducted the nepotism investigation, Baker apparently conducted an investigation of her own – into the contents of DIR employee emails. Her probe allegedly turned up emails that DIR later used to terminate Tongco’s employment.

DIR claimed the emails showed that “Tongco discussed what should have been confidential information with her colleagues” and that she allegedly “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.”

This story has more twists than a John Le Carré thriller.

It gets weirder. Some suspect Baker’s DIR also secretly monitored other emails, including an exchange between Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board Chairwoman Katherine Zalewski and State Bar of California General Counsel Vanessa Holton. The alleged surveillance was revealed when a DIR employee “inexplicably included a copy of the exchange in her own email to Holton,” according to Workcompcentral.

Lessons for state workers:

Assume that your boss is reading your emails. Act accordingly.

Beware the auditor. As Tongco learned, you may be on your own if you face retaliation for being honest. Who wants to get fired for cooperating in a secret investigation?

Remember: You can always send tips to Wes Venteicher, the Bee’s State Worker reporter. He publishes his investigations in the newspaper. Reach him at wventeicher@sacbee.com or 916-321-1410.

Lessons for the rest of us:

Gov. Gavin Newsom should seize the opportunity to install fresh new leadership at DIR.

Maybe five terms in the auditor’s office is enough for Howle, who was first appointed during the Davis administration. In 2017, an anonymous letter regarding management issues in Howle’s office delayed her reappointment. The legislature’s (non-secret) investigation found some merit to claims of “declining morale, increased turnover and weak whistleblower protections that may deter some employees from voicing their concerns” in her office. In addition, the auditor had allowed senior members of her staff to accumulate excessive unused leave totals. All in all, it was – according to critics interviewed by The Bee – “the kind of misconduct that she regularly highlights in other state departments.”

  Comments