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California state agency director wrongly helped hire and promote her daughter, audit says

California state agency director wrongly helped hire and promote her daughter, audit says
The state Capitol in Sacramento. A state audit on Tuesday alleged nepotism in one agency (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A former state government administrator allegedly engaged in “gross misconduct” by using the influence of her position to circumvent California’s civil service employment process in hiring and promoting her daughter, according to a state auditor’s report sent Tuesday to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Though the report does not identify the department involved or the former director, who served during the administration of former Gov. Jerry Brown, state officials said the subjects of the audit are the state Department of Industrial Relations and its former executive director, Christine Baker, who retired in March 2018.

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Garin Casaleggio, a representative of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, which includes the department, also confirmed the focus of the audit.

Baker disputed the audit findings, saying in an email that “the nepotism allegations are untrue.”

State Auditor Elaine Howle cited whistleblower protection laws in declining to name the former administrator or agency in her report, which alleges that a person identified only as “director” attempted to retaliate against whistleblowers who raised concerns about the director’s actions. The audit also says that the state agency overseeing the department failed to implement recommended changes to prevent misconduct in the future.

State Labor Secretary Julie A. Su, whose agency oversees the department and administers state laws on workplace safety, wages and hours, as well as workers’ compensation programs, promised reforms after Howle’s findings.

“This report raised serious concerns,” said Su, who was appointed by Newsom in January, after the period of time detailed in the audit. “Among the many important roles that the labor agency plays in securing just working conditions for Californians, our job is to prevent retaliation against employees who exercise their rights in the workplace, which makes any retaliatory conduct within the agency all the more unacceptable.”

The audit details allegations of improper governmental activities spanning from 2011 to 2018.

According to the report, the director “preselected her daughter for a role in her own department, precluding consideration of and competition from other potential applicants.” It adds that the administrator’s daughter “did not have the requisite qualifications for the job, nor did she follow the application rules to which all candidates must be held equally.”

The director’s daughter also did not meet minimum qualifications for a promotion she received, the audit said. When a manager proposed discipline against the daughter, the report said, another senior staff member asked “Are you trying to lose your job?” and said that such action should not be taken.

Baker and the state Department of Industrial Relations were sued in December by a former employee, Socorro Tongco, who said she was wrongfully terminated and alleged retaliation and nepotism.

Tongco’s lawsuit claims that Baker “used her position and authority to hire and promote various family members to positions of authority” in the department, including Baker’s daughter, who was hired as a special investigator. Baker’s brother was a chief of information technology for the department, the lawsuit said.

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Tongco, who was a special investigator for the department, is represented by attorneys for the California Statewide Law Enforcement Assn., according to the group’s chief counsel, Kasey Clark.

Clark said the allegations in the auditor’s report “sync with the chronology of events that transpired during the course of my client’s employment” at the department.

Baker and the department are being defended in the lawsuit by the office of state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, which filed a court motion three weeks ago to “deny generally and specifically each and every allegation contained in the complaint.”

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the case.

In January, Baker was appointed by the Brown administration to the state Fraud Assessment Commission, according to the office of Newsom, who declined to comment on the audit Tuesday.

Su, a former state labor commissioner, said in a statement that she is taking steps to prevent such problems in the future.

“The auditor’s report exposed a systemic breakdown and I am committed to ensuring that the proper infrastructure is in place to prevent any such violations in the future,” she said.

Howle said the state has failed to carry out reforms despite being provided an initial report last May after the department director’s departure. She also said a previous administrator had leaked information about the allegations to Baker.

In a letter to the governor and legislative leaders, Howle wrote that despite warning state officials of the misconduct, “we do not yet see evidence that the agency has acted with appropriate rigor to remediate the effects of the director’s behavior; in fact, since we informed the oversight agency of our findings, it has not fully implemented any of the recommendations we made in the report.”

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