It was ten-years ago that I contacted the Compliance Officer for the Orange County Health Care Agency to report improper conduct on the part of the agency related to the management of Federal HIV/AIDS funds. I was a Program Supervisor in the HIV Planning and Coordination unit that managed federal and state HIV/AIDS funding coming into Orange County. Simply put, under the direction of my Division Manager, the county had paid a contractor for work we knew had not been done. That contractor had been paid more than $142,000 and had not served anywhere near the number of clients they were contracted to serve. Basically, they were paid for services they never delivered. According to county policy and the Health Care Agency’s Code of Conduct, I was required to report the failure to properly manage these federal grant funds. The Orange County Register published an investigative report by Norberto Santana on March 6, 2006 titled Misplaced Faith about the mismanagement of the funds.
Ten-years ago today, and a little more than one business day after I made my report to the Assistant Compliance Officer, Dr. Penny C. Weismuller, the Division Manager of Disease Control and Epidemiology, reassigned me out of my position with the HIV Planning and Coordination unit. Weismuller was the primary party responsible for the improper conduct I reported.
Knowing that I am HIV-positive, Weismuller assigned me to work the Tuberculosis Testing Clinic in the obvious hope that I would voluntarily terminate my employment with the county. Tuberculosis is one of the highest risks for morbidity in people living with HIV disease. The work location was a clear hazard to my personal health and as the Administrative Law Judge put it, the action of Dr. Weismuller was clearly an act of retaliation. For all intents and purposes, it appears that Weismuller in effect tried to kill me.
All levels of management in the Health Care Agency, Human Resources, and even Internal Audit, denied that I was even at any risk of potentially fatal exposure to Tuberculosis despite OSHA standards that said otherwise. Since Weismuller was the Tuberculosis Controller for the county she was able to initially convince her colleagues that there was no health risk. They did ultimately move me out of the clinic, after three weeks but I was never allowed to return to my earlier position or access emails and other documents that supported my claims of misconduct.
The county’s internal investigation, which was refuted by a federal review, determined that there was no substance to my complaint. The federal investigation however, found gross mismanagement of the HIV funding related to my complaint and initially demanded the county return more than $142,000 in mismanaged funds. The County was able to get that amount reduced to about $22,000 on appeal because the federal agency providing the funding was complicit in the mismanagement of the funds. The story of my complaint and subsequent retaliation was chronicled in an Orange County Register investigative story by Norberto Santana in March 7, 2006: AIDS Fund whistle-blower was terrified.
Today, on the tenth anniversary of that retaliation I’m still working for the Health Care Agency. I have managed to turn my anger and resentment over the conduct of multiple levels of county management in a positive direction. I became a steward for the Orange County Employees Association and joined the union’s board of directors in 2006. In January, I was elected by my fellow 16,000 general member employees to the Board of Trustees of the Orange County Employees Retirement System. I’ve spent the past several years fighting for the rights and needs of thousands of public employees throughout Orange County. Last year, I was even asked by the HCA Compliance Office to join the team revising the agency Code of Conduct.
After ten years, I am still left waiting for one simple thing, an apology. An apology, or at least an acknowledgment that the managers responsible for protecting me from retaliation for my good-faith report of misconduct.
I honestly do not expect that an apology will ever actually come my way. But the absence of an apology is a dark and painful reminder that no good deed goes unpunished. The lack of an apology also reminds me that the words on the pages of our code of conduct are worth no more than the commitment of those in leadership positions to follow them.
I have since moved on in my county career and have enjoyed a relatively good relationship with HCA management over the past 5 years or so. I look forward to continued productive interactions whenever they may occur. I hope the recent changes in centralizing County Human Resources functions, following the disastrous revelations about the handling of sexual harassment complaints against former Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante, will have an impact.
As Board of Supervisors looks to fill the position of County CEO, I hope their search will lead to an individual with the moral compass and integrity to adhere to the highest standards of ethics and accountability and enforce those standards at all levels in the county workforce.
Yes, after ten years I’m still standing. Dr. Weismuller, and many of the managers responsible for the retaliation I endured have, long since left county service. Dr. Weismuller took early retirement two weeks after my complaint was filed but continued to work for the county as “extra-help” for another 18 months. She is currently still working as Coordinator of the Graduate Nursing Program at Cal State Fullerton. They’re gone, and in spite of their best efforts, I’m not. For me, it was important to not turn a blind eye to misconduct. But not everyone is willing to pay the associated price for integrity. That is why it is so important for managers, at the highest levels of the county structure, to ensure that policies designed to protect employees who raise concerns are followed.