Gov. Gavin Newsom and other elected officials questioned the continued state service of a former agency administrator accused of nepotism and retaliating against a whistleblower, but stopped short Friday of calling for her resignation.
A state audit this week criticized Christine Baker, without naming her, for her actions as executive director of the state Department of Industrial Relations before she retired in March 2018. The report said she circumvented state civil service rules in hiring. It also alleged she sought to retaliate against whistleblowers who raised concerns about the director's actions.
In January, just days before leaving office, then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Baker to the state Fraud Assessment Commission, which allocates funding to prosecutors handling cases of workers' compensation insurance fraud.
A prominent Democrat in the Bay Area, Baker has been a fixture in state government for nearly four decades and was one of Jerry Brown’s first appointments when he made her director of the Department of Industrial Relations in 2011 just after he took office.
The governor appoints members to the commission “who serve four-year terms or until the governor appoints a replacement,” according to the panel’s website.
A Newsom spokesman declined Friday to say whether he would take action against Baker, but questioned her remaining on the Fraud Assessment Commission.
“The allegations in the report are egregious, and those who violate the public trust in this manner should not be in state service,” said Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Newsom.
“The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and Department of Industrial Relations play a critical role in securing just working conditions for Californians,” Melgar added. “The allegations made public earlier this week were all the more troubling because the agencies involved exist to prevent retaliation against employees who exercise their rights in the workplace.”
Although the fraud panel is appointed by the governor, it operates in the office of state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, who also voiced concerns through a spokesman about Baker staying in her post.
“While the commissioner does not make appointments to the Fraud Assessment Commission, given the seriousness of these allegations he has severe reservations about Ms. Baker’s capacity to continue service,” said Byron Tucker, a spokesman for Lara.
Baker, a Berkeley resident, has denied that she engaged in nepotism or gave her daughter special treatment, and was defiant Friday about any suggestion that she step down from the commission, which meets three or four days a year. Members are paid $100 for the days they work.
“The Brown administration was fully aware of the report when they appointed me,” Baker said in an email. “The report is one-sided and there is pending litigation separate from the audit report and I cannot comment further.
“I have not heard from the Newsom administration and I support them completely,” she added.
A representative of Brown did not respond to requests for comment from the former governor on Baker.
The report sent to Newsom on Tuesday by State Auditor Elaine Howle alleged that an unidentified director “pre-selected her daughter for a role in her own department, precluding consideration of and competition from other potential applicants,” and that the daughter did not have the requisite qualifications for the job and did not follow the application rules to which all candidates.
“A department director consistently engaged in misconduct by using the influence of her position to circumvent California’s long‑held civil service hiring process when she orchestrated personnel decisions that benefited her daughter,” Howle’s report said.
Baker sent her supporters a lengthy rebuttal to the auditor’s allegations this week, arguing that her daughter had worked for another state agency that she left in good standing, so she was eligible and qualified to be hired back at a similar position.
She said she asked the hiring manager if her daughter could be hired “as I would have done for anyone I knew who was qualified and wanted to work for DIR, especially at a time when all divisions were struggling to hire more staff.”
Baker also denied the allegations of retaliation.
“The staff members who prepared the auditor’s report clearly do not understand the distinction between retaliation and setting the record straight on personally damaging misinformation,” Baker wrote.
Baker said the report is unfair to her daughter.
“In hindsight, I deeply regret that she chose to work at the department — which she was lawfully entitled to do, whether or not I was director,” Baker said, adding that Howle was “misled by a band of people that organized to take me down.”