San Francisco program leads to whistle-blowing in the wind

San Francisco’s Whistleblower Complaints Program has uncovered and corrected many instances of governmental waste, fraud and abuse in the past seven years. But a recent grand jury report itself blows the whistle on the program, pointing out significant shortcomings in need of correction.

“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, and fails to create effective and independent oversight,” the grand jury report said.

When whistle-blower programs work well, they can save taxpayers hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars. Last year, a San Diego whistle-blower investigation exposed fraud in the Park and Recreation Department that led to the recovery of more than $100,000 in misappropriated funds, according to the report. In Spokane, Wash., a whistle-blower tip revealed that a state parks project budgeted at $140,000 had ballooned to $7 million as a result of gross waste and negligence.

But in San Francisco, with about 27,000 city employees and a $6.8 billion budget, the county’s whistle-blower program is uncovering relatively minor issues such as a contractor being wrongly reimbursed for alcohol and cigarettes, a manager hiring family members and an employee selling bidets to co-workers on city time.

When significant abuse was revealed by two Laguna Honda Hospital doctors, who pointed out that the Patient Gift Fund was being used for elaborate staff parties and travel, it resulted in $350,000 being returned to the fund. But one of the doctors was fired shortly thereafter and the other said she was pressured to quit. Hospital officials say there was no retaliation for the whistle-blowing, but the fired doctor has filed a lawsuit.

In addition to the fear of retaliation, more whistle-blowers may be reluctant to come forward because they are pretty much shut out of the process, not allowed to learn the details of the investigation. By contrast, the San Diego and Spokane programs provide public access to the results of investigations, according to the grand jury.

City Controller Ben Rosenfield has sought to do damage control, saying the grand jury did not do adequate research, only interviewing him for an hour and his staff for three hours, and that the grand jury appeared to base its report on five whistle-blowing complaints out of 2,228 filed since the program’s inception in 2004. Rosenfield defended keeping whistle-blowers in the dark on the investigations, citing a “continued effort to maintain a balance between transparency and confidentiality, and protect complainants from retaliation.”

But it looks as if San Francisco’s whistle-blowing program is mainly protecting those who scam the system. One
whistle-blower told the grand jury, “I assure you, the next time I witness somebody dipping their hands into public funds to steal money intended to serve the disabled, I will certainly not stick my neck out by blowing the whistle and being left abandoned to suffer the blowback of retaliation and retribution.”

Rather than becoming defensive, city officials need to improve this inadequate program. Otherwise, as the grand jury said, “A poor or mediocre Whistleblower Program — one that seems to be something it is not — is perhaps worse than none at all.”

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