Grand jury report critical of whistleblower program

July 11, 2011 7:57:12 PM PDT
An investigation into San Francisco's whistleblower program was released Monday and the results aren't good. That report by a civil grand jury concludes that public employees who try to do the right thing by reporting waste, fraud and abuse are not being protected. The I-Team has been investigating this issue over the past year.

Each of the 34 pages contains another reason why the program is not working -- whistleblowers face retaliation, investigators waste their time on minor complaints, and the process is not transparent enough.

The report's title says it all -- "Whistling in the Dark." The civil grand jury found that "San Francisco's whistleblower program has failed in its mission to promote the identification of waste, fraud and abuse."

Members of the jury interviewed several whistleblowers profiled by the I-Team over the past year and cited their cases.

"We were confronted with wrongdoing and then we became whistleblowers and then we found out that was a very dark place to be," said former Laguna Honda doctor Derek Kerr.

Doctors Kerr and Maria Rivero complained to the city's whistleblower program about the misuse of Laguna Honda's Patient Gift Fund. Money that was donated to make life more comfortable for the hospital's patients was going to elaborate staff parties and travel. Administrators eventually returned $350,000 to patient accounts, but laid off Kerr and then replaced him.

"The way the whistleblower program has evolved, it's become a threat to whistleblowers, and I've paid the price, but what I want is for no one else to go through this," said Kerr.

Rivero says she resigned under pressure and that the whistleblower program failed her

"Anybody in their right mind would never go to them with a complaint because No. 1, they're not going to do anything about it, and No. 2, they stand by while it's open season on you," said Rivero.

The grand jury concluded:

  • 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
  • Fails to create effective and independent oversight

"Like any government function, there's room for improvement, and acknowledging that and working towards it is part of what we do in this office always," said San Francisco City Controller Ben Rosenfield who oversees the whistleblower program.

But Rosenfield complains the civil grand jury focused on a fraction of the 2,200 whistleblower cases his office has investigated since 2004.

"So we think that and know that those investigations have resulted in the recovery of taxpayer funds, and we think a more effectively run government," said Rosenfield. "Unfortunately, none of that context is provided in the report."

The grand jury did conclude that the "whistleblower program in its current form has yielded underwhelming results as measured in dollars and cents."

Read the grand jury report and the controller's response in the I-Team Blog.

As always, we're interested in hearing from people with inside knowledge of problems in government all across the Bay Area. If you have a tip for the I-Team, send us an e-mail here or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.

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