Taxpayers on the hook: Judge says San Francisco must pay $2.4 million in fees to whistleblower's lawyers

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017
This undated image shows lawyer Joanne Hoeper as she looks at documents in San Francisco.
This undated image shows lawyer Joanne Hoeper as she looks at documents in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For San Francisco taxpayers, the cost of an alleged sewer repair scam keeps getting more and more expensive.

A judge says the city, meaning taxpayers, should pay more than $2.4 million in legal fees to attorneys for a whistleblower who won her wrongful termination lawsuit in March.

Joanne Hoeper was a 20-year veteran lawyer in the San Francisco City Attorney's Office.

She says, after getting tipped off by an FBI agent, she discovered staffers were approving payments to plumbing contractors for unnecessary sewer repair work.

She estimates it cost taxpayers $10 million or more between 2002 and 2012.

In 2012, soon after providing City Attorney Dennis Herrera with a confidential report on her preliminary investigation, he fired her.

Hoeper filed a lawsuit alleging she was a victim of retaliation and was terminated because she blew the whistle on what she believed was a scam.

Click here to read her report, known as Exhibit 23, included as evidence at her trial.

Herrera's defense argued she was fired for incompetence and there was no proof of a scam.

But in March a jury unanimously found in Hoeper's favor.

The jury found the defendants believed Hoeper had disclosed to her superiors information about the commission of unlawful acts and she acted to stop a false claim.

The jury also found her acts were a substantial motivating reason for the decision to terminate her, and they did not believe she would have been fired at that time for legitimate independent reasons.

Click here to read more on what the jury found in their verdict form.

As a result of the verdict Hoeper was awarded more than $2.63 million by Superior Court Judge Lynn O'Malley Taylor.

Click here to read Judge O'Malley Taylor's court order on the award to Joanne Hoeper.

Now, the judge says the city should also pay Hoeper's attorneys more than $2.4 million dollars in legal fees.

Click here to read the judge's order awarding legal fees.

As for City Attorney Herrera, he paid an outside legal team millions of dollars to defend against the whistleblower's lawsuit.

The team included one of his campaign contributors.

Documents from the SF Controller's office show taxpayers have already ponied up $2,516,017.75 for Herrera's defense.

That amount only includes payments made prior to January 2017 but not payments made for the last six months or the cost of lawyers for the 3-week trial.

Documents filed by Hoeper's lawyers during pretrial hearings estimate the total cost of Herrera's defense will exceed $5 million.

Herrera is appealing the jury verdict but pending that appeal this case may end up costing taxpayers millions more.

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