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Little-known state board overturns employee terminations

When thousands of dollars belonging to elderly residents of a veterans home went missing, police set out to catch the thief. A video camera they hid showed nurse's aide Linda Riccitelli creeping into a 93-year-old man's room and sticking her hand in a dresser drawer stashed with bait money.

Investigators confirmed the cash was gone and the video showed that no one else had opened the drawer.

Prosecutors charged Riccitelli with burglary, and the Department of Veterans Affairs fired her. To most, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. But a little-known state agency that rules on employee discipline saw things differently. It ordered Riccitelli re-hired, with three years' back pay because, they said, the evidence was "circumstantial."

The board has reversed dozens of terminations in recent years, turning the employees' time off into the equivalent of long, paid vacations. Among the cases: a mentally disturbed prison doctor fired for mistreating inmates; a psychiatric hospital aide fired for allegedly striking a severely disabled patient with a shoe, and a prison mechanic who requested two-months' leave to address "family issues" while he was in jail for beating his wife.

Working for the state is "different" from the private sector, said Personnel Board Executive Director Suzanne Ambrose, explaining that the review process was designed to prevent employees from losing their jobs for political reasons and to ensure "fairness in how the government work is being done."

By contrast, the vast majority of Californians who work in the private sector serve at the pleasure of their bosses. If fired, they have little recourse unless they prove in civil court that their employer violated anti-discrimination laws by terminating them based on something such as their age, race or disability.

State employees can go to court, too. But first they're entitled to a review by the Personnel Board, a $26-million public agency with a staff of 170. The five board members, who are appointed to 10-year terms by the governor and paid $40,668 a year, meet twice a month to review staff decisions.

In more than 97% of the cases the board upheld the decision of the agency that fired the employee, Ambrose said. But records show that in the last three years they have ordered agencies to re-hire 93 employees, many with checks for their full salary and benefits for the months, or years, they did not work for the state.

The vast majority of employees who appeal to the board are prison guards. The details of those cases are secret under a state law prohibiting disclosure of "peace officer" discipline proceedings.

Board officials could not say how much total back pay has been awarded as a result of their decisions because, Ambrose said, they don't track those costs. State Controller John Chiang, who makes the payments, was able to provide the amounts that went to specific individuals.

A Times review of decisions, court records and payroll data involving 24 non-peace officers who were reinstated since 2009 showed their average back pay was just over $117,000.

Prison doctor Jeffrey Rohlfing, who has a history of mental illness and had been kept away from patients for six years by fellow physicians who didn't trust his clinical skills, was ordered re-hired with $541,683 in back pay in late 2009.

Even after his return, he earned his $235,000 salary to review files in a storage room. He wasn't cleared to treat patients until August.

Another prison doctor who had been fired for withholding pain medication and other treatment from inmates whom he accused of faking their maladies, including one who needed surgery for a damaged spinal disc and another who had chronic kidney disease, was rehired and got $533,877 in back pay, records show.

The board also ordered psychiatric technician Gregory Powell back to work at the Sonoma Developmental Center after he had been fired for hitting a profoundly disturbed patient so hard with a shoe that police found welts matching the pattern of the sole three hours later.

After the patient refused Powell's repeated order to put his shoes on, a psychologist said she saw Powell smacking the patient with a shoe as he cowered on a couch.

Powell said the seated patient had attacked him. He denied hitting the man with the shoe. More than three years later, in October 2009, the board sided with Powell, discounting the police report and arguing the psychologist had been new at the time and wasn't familiar with the patient's "aggressive proclivities."

The Department of Developmental Services filed unsuccessful appeals that kept him away from the facility until August of this year, Powell said in an interview Tuesday.

Then, in late September, another co-worker accused him of neglect for leaving a medication cart unlocked and a patient without her oxygen, Powell said. Investigators found no wrongdoing, Powell said, but he has decided to resign and take a job in the state prison system instead.

Department of Developmental Services spokeswoman Nancy Lungren said she couldn't comment on Powell's departure because it was a personnel matter.

In the Veterans Home of Chula Vista case, 93-year old victim Raymond Germain testified at a preliminary hearing that he had never given anyone permission to open his dresser and take the money. So Linda Riccitelli was charged with burglary, and a San Diego County judge set a trial date, saying there was "sufficient cause to believe" Riccitelli was guilty.

Germain died shortly after that hearing, and prosecutors dropped the criminal case.

Then, the state's lawyers say, Riccitelli offered an explanation: Germain had asked her to go to his dresser and get his cigarettes.

The police report showed there had been a box of cigarettes in the drawer, but it wasn't missing when investigators checked the next morning and the video did not show Riccitelli, or anyone else, returning the cigarettes, according to Denise W. Lewis, the Veterans Affairs attorney who handled the case.

The California Department of Public Health revoked Riccitelli's certification following the charges. But the Personnel Board sided with Riccitelli.

The panel concluded that the 10-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol who conducted the sting wasn't qualified, the video wasn't clear enough to show what was in Riccitelli's hand as she withdrew it from the drawer and the department hadn't attempted "progressive discipline," lesser punishment designed to help employees learn from their mistakes.

Following her victory before the board, but with no certificate to work as a nurse's aide, Riccitelli agreed to resign in exchange for $22,000 and a promise from the department to remove all references to the theft from her personnel file. The legal maneuver means she remains eligible for jobs at other state agencies.

Riccitelli could not be reached, and her attorney was unavailable to comment.

The board came to a split decision last year on Carlos Gonzalez, the prison mechanic who asked for a leave of absence to address "family issues" while serving a 90-day jail sentence for beating his wife.

A Monterey County sheriff's deputy called prison officials to tell them that not only was Gonzalez in jail, but he was housed in a wing reserved for gang members. The state prison system has one of the worst gang problems in the country and is highly sensitive to the dangers of gang members infiltrating staff.

Despite all of that, the pressing question before the board wasn't whether to re-hire Gonzalez. It was whether to award him full salary and benefits for the two years he didn't work while his appeal wound its way to a decision, or to pay him for just one of the years as punishment for his proven misdeeds.

The debate added six months to the board's deliberations, records show. Former member Sean Harrigan, who had been executive director on the West Coast for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, argued they should only dock Gonzalez 20-days' pay because prison officials offered no proof that they had told him about the requirement to report arrests to his supervisors.

Gonzalez, who declined to comment for this story, had failed to report two arrests for domestic violence, a third for violating a protective order and a fourth for testing positive for cocaine while on probation.

The board settled on awarding Gonzalez one-year's salary in back pay. Harrigan said he doesn't remember the case, but he defended the lengthy appeals process. "I don't think it's elaborate," he said. "I think it's just a fundamental right of employees who are represented" by unions."

jack.dolan@latimes.com

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