Nepotism investigation expands at California agency: ‘I can’t wait for the truth to come out’

Seven high-level California government employees could face discipline for their roles in helping a former state department director promote her daughter and favor at least one other job applicant, according to a State Personnel Board report published Thursday.

Identifying employees by their initials only, the report says former Department of Industrial Relations Director Christine Baker called on coworkers to circumvent state rules to get her daughter hired and promoted while shielding her from discipline.

The Personnel Board’s report was based on a review of statements and documents gathered by California State Auditor Elaine Howle, who drew similar conclusions from the materials in a report published last month.

Baker, reached by phone Thursday, vigorously disputed the findings by Howle’s office that informed the two reports, saying the auditor’s office omitted key facts and that she wasn’t contacted by the Personnel Board for its investigation.

“There are factual errors in that report,” she said.

Thursday’s report concluded Department of Industrial Relations employees violated the state constitution’s rules that hires should be based on merit.

“The unlawful and unethical actions addressed in this report, as well as the additional concerns raised in the report by the (California state auditor), are significant,” the report states, adding, “DIR must not wait to be directed to take appropriate corrective action, as there remains a significant risk that other unlawful actions will fail to be remedied.”

Julie Su, secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, said in a written response to the report that she had already reassigned a human relations official with the initials HH, and that she would investigate and respond.

The report directs the Department of Industrial Relations to continue investigating, and to consider disciplinary action against the seven employees it says provided “material assistance” to Baker.

The employees identified include several top-ranking human relations officials, a call center manager, and a policy and research official. Baker’s daughter no longer works at the department.

Baker said she plans to introduce facts supporting her side of the story as part of DIR’s review. Baker, who worked for the department for more than 30 years and was well-regarded in the field of workers’ compensation, said she did nothing more to aid her daughter’s hiring than she would have for any other qualified applicant in 2011, when she was trying to fill more than 400 vacancies and reduce a backlog of work coming out of a hiring freeze under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I can’t wait for the truth to come out; really, I can’t,” she said Thursday. “It has been very, very trying on me and my family.”

The report says Baker worked with a hiring manager to steer her daughter through the hiring process to get an analyst job even though her daughter scored too low on an exam to qualify.

“You need to be her angel on her shoulder helping her,” Baker said in an email to the hiring manager, identified as JY, according to the report. “She had a rough year. I know you know, because I remember when you went through the very same thing and now look at you.”

Baker said her daughter didn’t need to take the exams because she qualified for a transfer due to past work at the Employment Development Department, where she received positive reviews and left voluntarily. Baker said the email wasn’t meant to encourage the hiring manager to circumvent any rules.

In a section titled “Transactions and Related Misconduct Involving (Baker’s daughter),” the report says Baker emailed former Labor Commissioner Julie Su — now secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency — saying her daughter had applied. The email said the job she applied for was “the easiest way to move her in,” and suggested she could later move into a higher job classification.

Baker said Thursday the report mischaracterized that email, which she said was intended to flag her daughter’s application to make sure the potential hire was appropriate.

Julianna Baker, Christine Baker’s daughter, was “well aware of the extreme lengths DIR was taking to effectuate her appointment,” the report states, citing an email in which she told the hiring manager, “I know you have really gone out of your way for me.”

“Rather than hold an open competition for the position, DIR repeatedly manipulated the system in (Julianna Baker’s) favor,” the report states.

Within seven months of the hiring, Julianna Baker was promoted to a deputy labor commissioner job, according to the report.

“At no time was there any intention to require (Julianna Baker) to compete for the position, and as a result, DIR acted in bad faith,” the report states.

Baker said 179 people applied for the job, and that her daughter scored high enough on a state exam to be considered for the position.

The report says Baker and other employees again acted inappropriately when they transferred her daughter to a temporary IT job that qualified her for a permanent IT job. Baker’s brother led the IT department as chief information officer.

Baker said the transfer followed harassment of her daughter by other employees.

In a letter defending herself, she said that she wished she “had handled some situations differently,” but said the audit resulted from a small group of employees who didn’t like changes she was making at the department.

Issues in Baker’s office came to Howle’s attention in 2015. She initially advised the state’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency it should investigate, but launched her own investigation and found out the agency’s investigation hadn’t remained confidential.

Howle’s report charged that Baker sought to undermine the investigation by searching for whistleblowers and communicating about the inquiry with a top-ranking official in Gov. Jerry Brown’s cabinet.

Howle finished her report in May 2018 but did not release it to the public until last month. She wrote in a letter that she chose to release the complete report because she did “not yet see evidence that the agency has acted with appropriate rigor to remediate the effects of the director’s behavior.”

Socorro Tongco, a former Department of Industrial Relations employee, sued the state in December in Alameda County Superior Court claiming she was pushed out of her job because she gave information to Howle’s auditors. The lawsuit says auditors’ questions involved Baker’s family members.

A notice of adverse action against Tongco says she was fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a former chief counsel for the department, which involved repeated instances of lying to her superiors about working from home while emails and other records showed she was traveling with the chief counsel. Tongco counters that she was not required to disclose her relationship, and in State Personnel Board records she denied the state’s other allegations.

“The audit process can be vulnerable to underperforming employees trying to claim “retaliation” as a way to deflect the focus from themselves,” she wrote. “That is what happened here.”

Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.