Editorials

Auditor’s investigation exposed nepotism at DIR. Why did she try to hide it?

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

After nearly a year of delay, California State Auditor Elaine Howle finally did the right thing by releasing details of her investigation into charges of nepotism at the Department of Industrial Relations. The surprising details in the report make it clear why some people wanted it to remain secret.

The investigation entailed a review of over one million emails and interviews with dozens of witnesses, including 20 who “feared retaliation.” The auditor uncovered mounds of evidence to support nepotism claims against DIR’s former director. She also discovered that the former director worked to undermine the auditor’s investigation – apparently with help “from a high-ranking official in Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration,” according to the auditor’s report.

“Howle wrote that the director seemed intent on identifying whistleblowers,” according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Adam Ashton and Wes Venteicher.

In surreal bureaucratic style, the auditor’s report fails to name the department or the director at the center of the report. But “the timeline of events described in the audit coincides with publicly available information describing the retirement last year of former Department of Industrial Relations Director Christine Baker,” according to The Bee.

Among other findings of the auditor’s investigation:

The director “intervened to help her daughter get a job at her department in 2011 even though the daughter did not meet minimum qualifications for the position.”

When the director’s daughter faced disciplinary action at work, “a senior supervisor intervened to protect her” and appeared to threaten her manager’s job, asking: “Are you trying to lose your job?”

In 2014, “the director transferred a manager after her daughter complained about a plan the manager had proposed,” according to The Bee. “The process by which the director instructed her staff to implement the disciplinary action violated state law and many of its requirements for carrying out a valid adverse action,” says the auditor’s report.

In 2015, the nepotism intensified. This time, the daughter got transferred to a new position with help from her mother, the director, and her uncle, the department’s chief information officer.

The audit also uncovered “several other ‘bad faith’ appointments the director made to help favored candidates bypass state civil service protections to land jobs.”

The report details years of misconduct at DIR. Yet the public might never have known about the scandal had it not been for an “error” on the state auditor’s website and a lawsuit filed by a fired DIR employee.

In 2018, former DIR Director 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,” according to The Bee.

The auditor never released the report. The Bee and the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association filed Public Records Act requests seeking to obtain it.

Public pressure on the auditor increased earlier this year when a former DIR employee, Socorro Tongco, sued the state. Tongco, who says she was fired for cooperating with the auditor’s investigation, provided an outline of the controversy swirling at Baker’s DIR. Tongco also alleged that Baker responded to the auditor’s investigation by launching her own investigation into the contents of DIR employee emails.

Baker’s email probe allegedly turned up emails that DIR later used to terminate Tongco’s employment, saying she 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.

The auditor’s report contains crucial details that taxpayers have a right to know. So, why did she try to bury this report for a year? The public relies on her to provide transparency and accountability. When she uses her power to hide the truth, she erodes public trust in her office.

Hopefully, she’ll remember this the next time one of her investigations uncovers wrongdoing and ineffectiveness in state government.

In the meantime, we urge Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Labor Secretary Julie Su to take immediate – and long overdue – action to fix what Su has called a “systemic breakdown” at DIR.

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