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Civil Grand Jury Blows The Whistle on City’s Whistleblower Program

by Larry Bush on 07/11/2011

in Busted

The San Francisco Civil Grand Jury flunked the city’s Whistleblower program in its latest report on the performance of City Hall in a July 11 release.

“Whistling in the Dark” faulted the city for its failure to protect city worker whistleblowers from retaliation, including being fired from their jobs, for its secrecy that prevents the public from learning the results of investigations, and for wasting its time on complaints that have little merit and are outside the scope of the program. The Civil Grand Jury also noted that oversight of the program is non-existent.

“Nearly eight years after its re-launch under a 2003 charter amendment, the Jury finds that the San Francisco’s Whistleblower Program has failed in its mission to promote the identification of waste, fraud and abuse,” states the 32-page report.

“The existing program deals with mostly low-level issues, does not foster transparency, lacks a comprehensive tracking system, angers and confuses whistleblowers, lacks an appeals system, and fails to create effective and independent oversight,” according to the findings of the Civil Grand Jury.

While the report takes a comprehensive view of the operation of San Francisco’s program, from its initial beginnings as a commitment to transparency launched by then-Mayor Art Agnos to its current policy of keeping its investigations secret even from those who filed the complaints, it serves up harrowing accounts of city workers who lost their jobs or forced to resign in retaliation for alerting city officials of waste, fraud or abuse.

The Civil Grand Jury notes that the city’s Ethics Commission is charged with protecting city workers from retaliation, and recommends that this responsibility be removed from Ethics in part because it has failed to act.

It Began Well, but then…

The city’s Whistleblower program began under the Mayor’s Office but was transferred to the Ethics Commission in 1995, following voters’ approval of the creation of the commission in 1995.

In 2003, dissatisfaction with the Ethics Commission’s failure to act – or even to issue the legally required annual Whistleblower report – led voters to transfer the investigation and complaint process to the City Controller. Ethics retained responsibility for protecting whistleblowers from retaliation.

The current approach was prompted, according to the report, by an effort to contain the fallout from a local scandal with voters told in a ballot argument by supervisors that “might have cost the City millions.”

“San Francisco’s Whistleblower Program in its current form has yielded underwhelming results as measured in dollars and cents,” reports the Grand Jury.

The Civil Grand Jury reports that, under the auspices of the Controller, oversight of the program falls to the General Obligation Bond Oversight Committee made up of political appointees, and which appeared to be ignorant of its responsibilities.

“In fact, it took more than seven years for CGOBOC to finally set up a three-member Standing Committee to serve as a Citizen’s Audit Review Board. There was virtually no meaningful whistleblower review undertaken until after the Review Board subcommittee was formed on July 18, 2010,” reported the Civil Grand Jury.

Whistleblowers Sacrifice Jobs, Careers in SF

The personal experiences of city workers who blew the over waste, fraud and abuse in their workplaces were detailed in several instances, each time leading to the employee facing retaliation.

“Of paramount importance, the program does not protect the whistleblower,” states the report.

“No discussion about public policy and whistleblowing can ignore the toll that is exacted from a man or woman on the inside who refuses to look the other way. Nor can we ignore the profound effect, cumulatively, of listening to so many credible, often harrowing accounts from the whistleblowers whom we interviewed,” according to the Civil Grand Jury.

The report noted the catch-22 for one whistleblower who was a staff member at the Ethics Commission and who was bumped from his job after filing a whistleblower complaint and being told he was “insubordinate.” But under the current system, it is Ethics itself that is charged with protecting against retaliation.

“This employee was bumped from his position in early 2010 and felt this was done in retaliation for his whistleblowing activities. The Ethics Commission’s sole duty under the Whistleblower program is to investigate complaints of retaliation. Where could this Ethics Commission staffer turn?” asks the Civil Grand Jury.

Further, there is no appeal process under the current system.

Accountability, Transparency Missing in City Hall Culture

The Civil Grand Jury’s outline of deficiencies in the program, from the technological issues of tracking complaints to public transparency to turning investigations over to the Departments that are the subject of the complaint hints at, but does not state, that the current operation is a rigged system designed to protect managers from exposure of mismanagement and corruption under their leadership.

“Policy initiatives mean little, however, if the organizational culture is at odds with essential principles of accountability and transparency,” notes the report.

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