I-Team

San Francisco whistleblower program comes under fire

Wednesday, May 25, 2011
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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Whistleblowers are an important part of making government work. They often uncover corruption and save taxpayers money. But the ABC7 News I-Team has learned that a San Francisco program to get whistleblowers to come forward has big problems.

Several people who have been trying to blow the whistle tell us the program is broken. They say the whistleblower complaint unit operates in secrecy, doesn't hold employers accountable, and leaves whistleblowers to fend for themselves. Now they're going public to demand changes.

MTA parking supervisor Bebe Pubill says she had to do something about a fellow supervisor -- that Elias Georgopoulus was out of control in the office and on the street, and everyone knew about it.

"And there are dozens more that haven't filed complaints because they're scared of him," said Pubill.

And now, she says, because she spoke out and filed a whistleblower complaint, she's feeling the heat.

"They are totally retaliating against me for helping my peers," she said.

A recent I-Team story revealed how Georgopoulus has racked up restraining orders, lawsuits and allegations of assaults, sexual harassment, ticket fixing, abusing a handicapped placard and macing drivers -- all complaints from MTA employees and the public. Pubill says she told MTA bosses about these problems for years but they did nothing. So three years ago she sent an email to the San Francisco Whistleblower Program. "I went to whistleblower -- 'Who can I contact?' That's what the email says -- 'This is what's happening in our department. Can you help me?'"

But that complaint also went nowhere. After a few emails of concern from whistleblower investigators -- one even asking "Are you still feeling threatened?" -- Pubill says the investigator just disappeared. That was in July 2009. So we checked on the status of her complaint. It simply says "closed" and "resolved by the department or agency."

"It was resolved by the department?" asked Pubill. "You show me how."

Just two weeks ago, Pubill got notice that she's being fired -- MTA officials say she overstepped her authority by looking into the complaints against Georgopolous: "...All Ms. Pubill has to do is report it to her immediate supervisor for investigation."

It's a common theme with whistleblowers, that the city program doesn't work, isn't accountable and abandons whistleblowers who suffer retaliation.

"My experience is that a lot of it is a sham," said former Laguna Honda doctor Derek Kerr.

Kerr ran an award-winning hospice program at Laguna Honda Hospital. Dr. Maria Rivero worked with dementia patients there for 22 years. They appealed to the whistleblower program in September 2009 after discovering hospital administrators were using patient gift fund money for staff parties. A year and a half later they're still waiting to hear from the whistleblower program.

"You have no protection and the investigations take so long that even if they decide that my rights were violated, two, three years later, everything is changed," said Kerr.

"The whistleblower program is like a black hole that doesn't listen to people, and in fact, it stands by while you are persecuted, harassed, transferred, fired," said Rivero.

Laguna Honda eventually returned $350,000 to patient accounts, but Kerr was laid off and then replaced, and Rivero says she resigned under pressure.

"They were ruthless," said Kerr. "Yeah, they were ruthless."

City controller Ben Rosenfield oversees the whistleblower program. He declined to be interviewed on camera, but told the I-Team any whistleblower who experiences retaliation can file a complaint with the ethics commission. It's their job to investigate. So we checked with the Ethics Commission. They could not tell us of a single case where they'd filed against an employer for retaliation against a whistleblower.

This doesn't surprise Oliver Luby. He filed with the controller when he was working at the Ethics Commission in 2009. He says his bosses were overbilling fees for political candidates, and in some cases sending people to collections for money they didn't owe.

"They seemed to think it was serious, but as far as I know, they never did anything about those violations," said Luby.

When he tried to find out what was happening with his complaint , the controller's office told him that all investigations are confidential, even if you are the whistleblower. Luby says that's an excuse.

"A confidentiality shield allows them to hide whether or not they do their job," said Luby. "The only incentive for the whistleblower to do this kind of stuff is their own conscience."

Luby was laid off a year later.

The I-Team took these stories to Supervisor Mark Ferrell who sits on the city's Government Audits Committee.

"If we have a lot of complaints and a lot of people coming to us indicating, talking about how this might not be as effective as they want it to be, it's absolutely something that were going to look at," said Ferrell.

Terry Francke is the director of the government watchdog organization Californians Aware. He says brave whistleblowers deserve better.

"The government should be ashamed to announce any kind of whistleblower protection program if it really cannot deliver on convincing the public that it's working," said Francke.

"I went to whistleblower, nobody did anything about it, no one," said Pubill. "And now it's out in the light, three years later they got problems."

The controller and the Ethics Commission couldn't tell us how many times they found in favor of a whistleblower in the last decade. They said those are not the kind of numbers they track. We've also learned a civil grand jury is now looking into the whistleblower program. We'll let you know when they release their findings.

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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