I-TEAM: 3 former Vallejo city employees say city manager fired them for whistleblowing

VALLEJO, Calif. (KGO) -- Three former Vallejo city employees say they were fired for being whistleblowers against City Manager Greg Nyhoff. The three employees filed a claim for damages against the city.

On April 23 of this year, City Manager Greg Nyhoff fired employees Will Morat, Joanna Altman and Slater Matzke.

Morat and Altman were Nyhoff's Assistants. Morat managed the economic development division.

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"Said I was terminated and they didn't have to give me a reason why," said Morat.

Altman managed special projects and communications.

"I was told that the city manager decided to go in a different direction and my services were no longer needed," said Altman.

Matzke was Nyhoff's special advisor.

"I mean I was shocked but not surprised," said Matzke.

He says that's because one month prior, the city compelled all three to participate in an investigation into Nyhoff.

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City Council called for the independent investigation after receiving a complaint. Then Interim City Attorney Randy Risner hired outside counsel Christopher Boucher to oversee it. Risner says Boucher had been doing seminars for city staff related to harassment and bullying.

"I don't know that he was unknown to city staff, but I don't know that city staff really knew him beyond the conducting of the seminars," said Risner.

Boucher says his office, in turn, hired independent labor and employment attorney and workplace investigator Linda Daube.

"The scope of what we were looking into was whether or not there were any city policy violations and/or issues related to the city manager's conduct," said Boucher.

Daube interviewed approximately 10 city employees, including Morat, Altman and Matzke but, according to Boucher, it was those three interviews that stuck out.

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"These individuals did not work well with Mr. Nyhoff, they did not care for Mr. Nyhoff as a city manager and frankly they wanted to get him removed as the city manager," said Boucher.

Morat, Altman and Matzke say they were hesitant to share their true feelings about Nyhoff, but that Daube assured them it would be anonymous.

"At one point I said my concern is that Nyhoff is going to get a hold of this report and when he does he's going to use it as a hit list to go after anyone that's critical of him," said Morat.

Boucher insists the only people privy to Morat, Altman and Matzke's names and attributed interviews was himself, Risner and Daube.

"When she provided her reports to me, we also redacted and came up with our own separate report that did not include any witness names," said Boucher.

Boucher says his paraphrased version of the report without employee's names was turned over to city council.

The investigation exonerated Nyhoff on all claims.

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"There's no evidence to support that Mr. Nyhoff had engaged in harassment or discrimination or that he's a racist," said Boucher.

Boucher says based on facts he learned throughout the investigation process he advised Nyhoff to fire Morat, Altman and Matzke which Nyhoff did on April 23rd, after the investigation was complete.

"There was bonafide independent reasons for their terminations that were unrelated," said Boucher.

The city will not share those reasons.

"These are at will employees, there doesn't need to be a reason you know the city manager can fire them if he doesn't like them and he doesn't feel that they fit on his team," said Risner.

"I unwittingly walked myself into the jaws of the lion basically," said Matzke.

"We all had blown the whistle on concerns that we had around corruption, potential unethical decision making, discrimination and harassment," said Altman.

"We whistle blew and we were terminated because of that," Altman continued.

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"I can tell you that the two events are not related at all," said Risner.

"Greg to this day has no idea who was interviewed or who said what during the interviews," Risner continued.

Morat, Altman and Matzke filed a wrongful termination claim for damages against the city.

"That's what our clients want out of this, compensation for what they've lost, which is significant, and hopefully they'll be some changes made in the way the city is run at the highest level," said Attorney Gary Gwilliam.

The claim alleges the employees were wrongfully terminated for complaining about discrimination, harassment and bullying and complaining about Nyhoff's improper, unethical, corrupt and illegal conduct with respect to city contracts as well as participating in the investigation regarding the same.

In an emailed statement to the I-TEAM, City Manager Nyhoff wrote:
"Given that I am the subject of these false allegations, I will defer to the outside counsel who was retained independently by the City Council and led the investigation with the three former employees you speak of to answer your questions. These former employees reported their allegations to the City Council. The Council responded appropriately by calling for an independent investigation into these claims. While I am not privy to the content of the investigation, I was notified by the Council that I was exonerated of all claims. It appears that the intention is to distract and deflect from the good that the City is doing to reform our police department and build a thriving community with a strong economy. I will continue to work with my diverse group of talented department directors, focusing on City Council's goals in the areas of economic development/jobs, public safety, and pandemic response. I am also looking forward to continuing to work with our 120,000+ residents to find solutions to our challenges and celebrate our successes."

But Morat suggests otherwise.

"The three of us did what was right and tried to protect the city, but Nyhoff was more interested in protecting himself," said Morat.
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