An audit by the State Personnel Board found that almost 1-in-5 employees of the former Board of Equalization had a relative somewhere in the organization. The agency and the department that was created to take over most of its work are sorting out whether they still have improper relationships among coworkers. Sacramento Bee file photo, 2014.
An audit by the State Personnel Board found that almost 1-in-5 employees of the former Board of Equalization had a relative somewhere in the organization. The agency and the department that was created to take over most of its work are sorting out whether they still have improper relationships among coworkers. Sacramento Bee file photo, 2014.

The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

The State Worker

State workers: Want a nepotism audit at your department? Send evidence

By Adam Ashton

aashton@sacbee.com

November 20, 2017 12:01 AM

UPDATED November 21, 2017 08:24 AM

The report that detailed a dense web of personal relationships at a California tax agency was the first deep look at nepotism in the state workforce by an auditing arm of the State Personnel Board.

It likely won’t be the last, said State Personnel Board Executive Officer Suzanne Ambrose.

She anticipates that her office will receive a wave of tips about nepotism in different offices because of the publicity her team’s report on the Board of Equalization received. But, she cautioned, the board will need solid evidence for it to pursue an investigation.

“We don’t have huge resources. We can’t chase down each allegation we get,” she said.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

Her department has about 70 employees who oversee the state’s recruitment, hiring and discipline procedures. It’s charged with undertaking regular audits that look at whether state departments correctly follow state human resources policies. It also in 2012 gained authority to carry out more elaborate, special investigations.

The Board of Equalization, an agency with 4,700 employees that collected more than $60 billion in revenue, drew auditors’ scrutiny because of outspoken whistleblowers who called attention to nepotism any way they could.

Tipsters over the past two years disclosed detailed descriptions of personal relationships among their co-workers to the Board of Equalization’s elected leaders, the personnel board, an auditing team from the Department of Finance and The Bee. The sometimes anonymous tips joked that elevators to the department’s top floors would be filled with people who were related to each other.

“We call it the 3 f’s for job requirements. You gotta be friends, family or friends of family to get hired,” read one message cited by the personnel audit.

In short, Ambrose’s office had a lot of material when it started looking at the Board of Equalization.

She assigned an investigator, a supervisor and an attorney to develop the nepotism report.

They found that at least 17.5 percent of the Board of Equalization’s employees had a relative somewhere in the organization, that the Board of Equalization disregarded its own anti-nepotism policy and that several people were hired under suspicious circumstances that suggested they benefited from personal connections there.

The report recommended dismissing three of them from civil service and barring a fourth former worker who’d left state government from returning.

Two of the employees that the report recommends dismissing from state civil service used to work for the Board of Equalization’s former communications director, Mark DeSio. DeSio did not hire the two employees, but he shared information about them with investigators, his attorney said.

DeSio was laid off in September. He filed a retaliation complaint with the State Personnel Board last month alleging he was mistreated because he cooperated with investigators, according to his complaint.

Elsewhere, personnel auditors found a number of offices within the Board of Equalization where parents worked alongside their siblings or cousins reported to the same manager. That kind of relationship is discouraged under the state’s anti-nepotism hiring guidelines.

Lawmakers in June stripped the Board of Equalization of most of its power and employees. Its successor organization, the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, will have to sort out the relationships in coming months, according to the personnel audit.

That new department published a new anti-nepotism policy in October that allows it to punish employees who advocate for friends or relatives seeking jobs there.

“CDTFA will work with (the state human resources department) to develop a corrective action plan for any reporting relationship identified that violates the new anti-nepotism policy,” tax department Executive Director Nick Maduros wrote in a response to the personnel audit.

Ambrose could not say whether the ratio of employees with relatives at the Board of Equalization was greater than at other departments. The state has not looked into the question.

State hiring guidelines do not bar relatives from getting jobs in the same departments. They prohibit relatives from working within the same chain of supervision, and they allow departments to reject candidates if hiring someone would create a perception of unfairness.

“What we’re looking at is whether or not the selection was influenced by the relationship,” Ambrose said.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.